Those weirdly beautiful ears have earned this wild cat its name. “Caracal” is reportedly derived from garah gulak, “black ear” in Turkish.
Taxonomists call it Caracal caracal.
Classifying this unusual-looking kitty once gave taxonomists a headache. Was it a lynx? A rather large “Felis” cat? Then molecular biology became a thing and proved beyond any doubt that caracals are part of their own unique evolutionary line.
- Large, triangular ears that sport black fur tufts up to 2 inches long. No one yet understands why caracals evolved that “wireless router” look. Ewer reports watching two cats using the ears as semaphores — one would twitch an ear, the other would reply in the same way. Or this ear setup might help with camouflage. In the right setting, it’s difficult to see a caracal that is keeping still, with its head almost flat on the ground. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
- A very short tail. Only lynxes have a shorter tail. (Cat Specialist Group)
- The only cat that routinely gets its food by catching birds on the wing, like this.
Perhaps caracals prefer flat, open areas for the same reason that NASA and the FAA do. Here’s another video of this amazing feat, and the physics it sometimes involves:
- The largest African small wild cat. The methods caracals use to catch prey reflect their middle position on the size spectrum. Like the smaller cats, caracals will use a killing bite to the back of their unfortunate victim’s neck to sever the spinal cord and instantly kill it. But, just like a lion or other big cat, the caracal can suffocate larger prey with a throat bite.
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 13 to 40 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: I couldn’t find reported numbers. Sunquist and Sunquist note that caracals are not quite as tall as their long-legged serval relatives but have a much stockier build.
- Body length: 32 to 39 inches.
- Tail length: 8 to 13 inches.
- Coat: Grayish tan to reddish, with white belly and a combination of dark lines and white areas near the nose and eyes. This is the third large cat — alongside lions and pumas — to have a solid-colored tawny coat. However, there sometimes are faint furry blotches or even clear spotting on the underparts, per Ewer, though it’s nowhere near as dramatic as lynx spots. Melanistic (black) caracals are occasionally seen, too.
- Vocals: Purr, meow, gurgle, hiss, growl, spit, “wah-wah” (a call also used by pumas and a few other cats), and perhaps a sort of bark. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Litter size: 2, with a range of 1 to 6. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist) Here are some newborn caracals in 2011:
Where found in the wild:
In the 20th century, per Ewer, caracals ranged through northern Africa from Morocco to Egypt. They also could be found just about everywhere else on that continent except tropical forests of western and central Africa and the Sahara and Namib deserts.
Caracals also roamed Arabia and the Near East, and were found to the east in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the northern and central parts of India.
Good news! They’re still around in the 21st century, except on the peripheries of their historic range, like Morocco and Egypt.
- Range of environments: Caracals live on the Serengeti and in other lion habitats, but they can also tolerate very dry conditions. However, you won’t find them in true deserts — only the sand cat, which we will meet later in this book, can handle such extreme environments.
- Prey base: Caracals are generalists. They’ll eat anything from a mouse to an antelope two to three times their size. Most of the time, though, caracals prefer small- to medium-sized (10 or 11-pound) mammals and birds. Caracal attacks are rare. However, they do sometimes go after domestic livestock, particularly sheep and goats.
- Example of guild: In central Iran’s dry plateau region, caracals coexist with sand cats (which prefer dunes and desert vegetation) and cheetahs (which race across flat land and foothills), as well as steppe wildcats and Persian leopards, both of which use a variety of habitats, as does the caracal. (Hemami et al.)
Little is known about caracals in the wild, not even if the overall population is growing, declining, or staying steady.
The IUCN lists caracals as Least Concern because known declines in caracal numbers are very localized and don’t seem to be affecting the global population.
Because of those local declines, though, caracals are considered Threatened in northern Africa, Critically Endangered in Morocco, and almost extinct in Egypt.
There are similar problems in other regions on the periphery of the caracal range. But the conservationists note that caracals seem adaptable enough to recolonize areas after they have been wiped out locally. Also, they’re so good at avoiding humans that there may be more cats out there than we know.
That’s encouraging. But caracals do cause problems for farmers, particularly subsistence farmers who can’t afford to lose a single domestic animal. This can lead to persecution of caracals.
Conservationists are working out how to help these people while also protecting the cats.
Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0
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Barycka, E. 2007. Evolution and systematics of the feliform Carnivora. Mammalian Biology. 72(5):257-282.
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Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Hemami, M. R.; Esmaeili, S.; Brito, J. C.; Ahmadi, M.; and others. 2018. Using ecological models to explore niche partitioning within a guild of desert felids. Hystrix, the Italian Journal of Mammalogy, 29(2): 216-222.
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