Chinese mountain cat : Felid with many names

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Chinese Mountain Cat (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Chinese mountain cat (Felis silvestris bieti), also known as Chinese desert cat, Grass Cat, Chinese Mountain CatChinese steppe cat, Chinese Alpine Steppe Cat and Chinese Grey cat, is a wild felid of western China. It has been placed under the category of Vulnerable by IUCN, as the effective population size may be fewer than 10,000 mature breeding individuals. Till 1992 this cat was known by the name Chinese Desert Cat, but its name was changed in Beijing by Chinese specialists, who argued that cats seen in the desert were misidentified Asian wildcats and not Felis silvestris bieti.

For long, on the basis of morphological analysis, it was considered a separate species, having a close relationship to the Wildcat (Felis silvestris). After the genetic analysis it was reclassified as Wildcat subspecies F. silvestris bieti in 2007. According to experts the estimated time of divergence was recent (230,000 years BP or Before Present). Scientists say that further study is warranted before this classification can be definitely accepted.

Taxonomic history

Alphonse Milne-Edwards first described the Chinese mountain cat in 1892 from a specimen collected in Tibet under the name Felis Bieti after the French missionary Félix Biet.Some authorities consider the chutuchta and vellerosa subspecies of the wildcat as Chinese mountain cat subspecies.

Description

Chinese Mountain Cats are felids with stocky physique, a little larger than a domestic cat, with short legs. Except for the colour of their fur, they look like European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) in its physical appearance.  With dark guard hairs the fur is sand-coloured, underside is whitish, while legs and tail bear black rings. Usually, the colour is light gray (fawn) during wintertime and would turn to a darker hue during the summer. Cat’s ears and tail have black tips, and there are also a few dark bands on the tail. The colour of the ears is of light red-brown, with tips of short hair tufts. Face and legs have faint dark horizontal stripes, which may be hardly visible.

The cat has body length of 69–84 cm while tail is 29–41 cm long. Weight of adults, range from 6.5 to 9 kilograms. There are long hairs growing between the pads of their feet and the skull is relatively broad.

Inhabitant of most difficult environments in the world

Chinese Mountain Cats have been surviving in one of the most difficult environments in the worldEndemic to China these cats have limited distribution over the north-eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. North-western Sichuan and Eastern Qinghai account for all confirmed records of the Chinese mountain cat. Found in high-altitude alpine meadow, alpine shrubland, steppe grassland and coniferous forest edges ranging between 2,500 and 5,000 m (8,200 and 16,400 ft) elevation, they have been reported living in the Daban and Datong mountains near Xining, at an altitude ranging from 2800 m to 4100 m. Chinese Mountain Cats (F.s. bieti) have not been recorded from true desert habitat or heavily forested mountains.

Their first photographs were taken by camera traps during light snow in May 2007 at the height of 3,570 m (11,710 ft) in Sichuan. These pictures were taken in rolling grasslands and brush covered mountains.

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Ecology and behavior

These cats are both crepuscular (active during twilight) and nocturnal, hunting in the dawn hours and late night time. Until 2007, they were known only from six animals, all in Chinese zoos, and a few skins in museums.

Their diet consists of rabbits, rats and birds (also pheasants). The majority of the rodents they catch are pikas, white tailed pine voles and mole rats. Their breeding time is between January and March and the female attends to two to four kittens in a secluded burrow with just one entrance.

Threats  

Although the Chinese Mountain Cat is fully protected by the government of China, but still its pelts make appearances at the markets. The cat is most threatened due to the organised poisoning of pikas, its main prey. These poisonings kill both ways. On one hand they kill the cats unintentionally and on the other they diminish their food supply.

Conservation

F.s. bieti, which is listed on CITES Appendix II is also protected in China. Since very little is known about cat’s behavior, ecology and status, there is not much interest in its conservation, consequently they have lost a great part of their habitat, and their kind is now among the most endangered cats on earth.

On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species this cat is listed as Vulnerable (VU), which means it is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Further information on distribution and status may warrant reclassification to a higher category of threat (IUCN Cats Red List workshop 2007).

Cat’s effective population size is believed to be fewer than 10,000 mature breeding adults, with a declining trend due to loss of prey base and persecution, and it may largely exist as a single interconnected subpopulation.

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