BLACK-FOOTED CAT : Smallest African feline

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Black-footed Cat (CC BY-SA 3.0) pix - Zbyszko

Endemic to southern Africa’s south west arid zones, black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is primarily found in Namibia, South Africa and marginally into Zimbabwe and likely in extreme southern Angola. It is one of the lesser studied African carnivores, and is listed as Vulnerable by IUCN since 2002. As far as Botswana is concerned, there are only historical records, no recent sightings. Although it occurs in dry, open savanna, grassland and Karoo semi-desert where there are shrubs and tree cover at altitudes of up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft), but is not found in the driest and sandiest parts of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts.

Smallest African cat

Black-footed cat is not only one of the smallest cat species, but is also the smallest among the cats found in Africa. Only the pads and underparts of its feet are black, which gives it its name. Their eyes are very large and the fur varies from cinnamon-buff to tawny, and is patterned with black or brown spots that merge to form rings on the legs, neck, and tail. Backs of the rounded ears are the same color as the background coat color. Their skin, however, is unpigmented pink, unlike that of other spotted cats.

Males when fully grown, normally weigh 2 kg, but can reach  maximum of 2.5 kg. Females on average weigh 1.3 kg, but can reach maximum weight of 1.65 kg. Males reach a head-to-body length of 36.5 to 43.5 cm with tails 16.5 to 20 cm. Females are smaller with head-to-body-length of 37 cm and taills 12.5 to 17 cm long. Shoulder height is about 25 centimeters.

Distribution of subspcies

Two subspecies are recognized:

  • F. n. nigripes — Occurs in Namibia, Botswana and in the northern parts of South Africa;
  • F. n. thomasi — Found in southeastern South Africa

Poor climbers

Strictly nocturnal, solitary and shy in nature, these cats are rarely seen as they spend their day by resting in unoccupied burrows of aardvarks, springhares, porcupines and in hollow termite mounds or  dense brush cover. Black-footed cats prefer dry, open habitat with little vegetation cover. Apparently, they get all the moisture they need from their prey, but drink water when available.

Their stocky bodies are not suited for tree-climbing so they avoid trees, unlike most other cats. These short-taild cats dig vigorously in sand to extend or modify burrows for shelter.

Though they are extremely shy creatures that seek refuge at the slightest disturbance or threat, but when cornered they do not hesitate in defending themselves fiercely. Due to their courage, which they show even against the much bigger animals, they are also known as the miershooptier (anthill tigers) in parts of the South African Karoo (a semi-desert natural region of South Africa).

The range occupied by any adult male overlaps up to four females’ ranges. Like all other cats they also have to search food for which they travel 8-10 km every night on an average. They use scent marking throughout their ranges. Males spray urine up to 12 times an hour. Like majority of the cats they also use other methods to scent mark their territories, which include depositing faeces on visible locations, rubbing objects and raking with claws. These cats have calls that are louder than those of other cats of their size. This allows them to call over large distances. However, when close to each other, they use quieter purrs or gurgles, or hiss and growl if threatened.

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Hunting and diet

Black-footed cats are quite energetic creatures. They usually remain active almost whole night in search of food. Since their energy requirements are considerably high, they consume food almost about a sixth of their body weight. Being small cats they rely on number of small animals to get their daily diet of 250 g meat. It is estimated that to get a full meal they have to kill up to 14 small animals every night.  Their prey species include small birds and rodents, but may also take white-quilled bustard and the Cape hare, the latter heavier than itself. Insects and spiders make a very small portion of their diet.

While hunting, they rely mainly on stalking for which they use cover of darkness and all other objects available, like rocks, stones, tree trunks and foliage etc. to approach the prey before the final pounce is made. They have also been observed waiting patiently at the entrance of rodents’ burrows, but this strategy is not commonly seen. Like many big cats, black-footed are also in the habit of hiding their quarry for later consumption, but this is very uncommon among other smaller species.

Reproduction

Female Black-footed cats come into estrus for very short period, one or two days at a time, and are receptive to mating for few hours only, requiring males to locate them quickly. One can imagine since the time is very short copulation takes place frequently during the period. Once the conception is complete female searches out a safe burrow where she can give birth to a new generation. Usually two kittens, 60 to 84 g (2.1 to 3.0 oz) each, are born after a gestation period of 63-68 days, but the number of kittens can vary from one to four. New born are blind at birth and are helpless. In order to save them from predators’ and other males, mother keeps moving them to new locations regularly after the first week.

Black-footed cat kittens develop more rapidly than other similarly sized cats. They quickly adapt to a relatively hostile environment. Start walking within two weeks and start taking solid food after about a month and are fully weaned by the time they are two months old. They become independent by five months of age, but may remain within their mother’s range.

Females reach sexual maturity after 8 to 12 months and may have up to two litters during the spring, summer and autumn. They have lived for 10 years in captivity.

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Breeding in captivity

Wuppertal Zoo in Germany acquired black-footed cats in 1957 and succeeded in breeding them in 1963. Thirty years later, in 1993, the European Endangered Species Programme was started to coordinate which animals are best suited for pairing to maintain genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding.

In February 2011, a female at the Audubon Nature Institute in USA gave birth to two male kittens. This is significant in the sense that the kittens were the first of their species to be born as a result of in vitro fertilization using frozen and thawed sperm and frozen and thawed embryos. In 2003, sperms were collected from a male and then frozen. Later they were combined with an egg from a female, creating embryos in March 2005. Those embryos were kept frozen for almost six years before being thawed and transferred to a surrogate female in December 2010, which carried the embryos to term, resulting in the birth of the two kittens. Scientists are of the opinion that this will provide a means for them to increase the species numbers, as well as introduce greater genetic variation into the small population.

On 6 February 2012, a female black-footed cat, named Crystal, was born to a domestic cat surrogate after interspecies embryo transfer.

Conservation

Felis nigripes is included on CITES Appendix I and is protected by national legislation across most of its range. Hunting is banned in Botswana and South Africa.

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