SAND CAT : A true desert feline

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Sand Cat

Found in northern Africa, southwest and central Asia sand cat, also known as the sand dune cat (Felis margarita), is the only member of the cat family, which is found primarily in true desert habitat and has a wide but apparently disjunct distribution. Well adapted to the extremes of desert environment this small cat is found in both sandy and stony desert, living in areas far from water.

Victor Loche (1806 – 1863), a French soldier and naturalist, first described this cat in 1858. He participated in an expedition to the Algerian part of the Sahara in 1856–1857 and described the mammals and birds of Algeria in the book Catalogue des mammifères et des oiseaux published in 1858. He found the sand cat specimen in the area of Négonça in the Sahara and proposed to name it in recognition of Jean Auguste Margueritte who headed the expedition.

Well adapted to desert extremes

Having thickly furred feet, sand cats are well adapted to the extremes of desert environment. They are highly tolerant to the extremes of hot and cold temperatures and can survive in temperatures ranging from  ?5 °C (23 °F) to 52 °C (126 °F), retreating into burrows during extreme conditions. Undersides of their paws are protected from extreme temperatures by thick, wiry, black colored fur, which is another distinguishing characteristic of the cat.

Long, thick hairs present between the toes create cushion of fur over the foot pads, enabling the cat move easily and swiftly over quickly moving sand, and also insulate the feet against hot desert sand. Claws present on hind feet are small and blunt, as there is little opportunity to sharpen them in the desert. This combined with the fur over the foot pads, makes the animal’s tracks obscure and difficult to follow. Sand cats drink water wherever and whenever available, but they are able to survive for months even if they don’t get it. This small, stocky cat with short legs and a relatively long tail obtains all the water it needs from the rodents, birds, reptiles and arthropods which it eats.

Highly sensitive ears

Catching prey is not a problem for the cat as its highly sensitive ears are well adapted for hearing sound created by prey both above and below the desert surface.

In comparison to other small felids, sand cat’s auditory bullae and the passages from the external ears to the ear drums are greatly enlarged. The pinnas (outer part of the ear) are triangular, large and pointed than the Pallas’s cat or manul (Otocolobus manul). Their ear canal is very wide, giving the cat an enhanced sense of hearing. Cat’s head is broad and the ears are set low, giving a broad flat appearance to the head. This trait protects the inner ears from wind-blown sand and helps in detecting movements of prey hiding underground. In arid habitat most small prey hide beneath the ground to avoid scorching sun.

Thick fur of medium length covers the body and protects it from the harsh nighttime temperatures. It is of pale sandy color usually without spots or stripes. The upper and lower lips, throat, chin and belly are white. The lower part of the face is whitish, and a faint reddish line runs from the outer corner of each eye, angling down across the cheek. Limbs have blackish bars and the tail has a black tip with two or three dark rings alternating with buff bands. Ears are tawny brown at the base with a black tip. Large and greenish yellow eyes are surrounded by a white ring and the naked nose-tip is black in color. In the northern parts, the cat’s winter coat can be very thick, with hairs reaching up to 2 inches in length. The patterns on the sand cat’s fur vary between the six subspecies.

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Smallest of all wild cats

Felis margarita is the size of a domestic cat and the smallest of all wild cats. Its head and body length ranges from 40 to 52 cm, with a 23 to 32 cm long tail. It weighs between 2 – 3.4 kg (males) and 1.4 – 3.1 kg (females).

Distribution and habitat

Sand cats are found in three distinct areas of the world which include parts of Central Asia including Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran; throughout the Arabian Peninsula; and the Sahara Desert of Africa in the countries of Morocco, Algeria and Niger.

They live in both sandy and stony desert habitat and prefer flat or undulating terrain with sparse vegetation, avoiding bare sand dunes, where there is relatively little food. These cats have a wide but apparently disjunct distribution through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. It is not clear whether the gaps in the known range are due to lack of records or the species is genuinely absent. For instance, there are reports of sightings in Libya and Egypt west of Nile, but there are no historical records despite intensive collecting effort. Sightings have also been reported from Tunisia, but no specimens have been collected. There are records of sightings from Mali and both specimens and sightings in Niger.

In north Africa, sand cats occur marginally in western Morocco, including former Sahara Occidental, Algeria and from the Sinai peninsula to the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt. In Mauritania, they are believed to occur in the Adrar mountains and Majabat al Koubra. Tracks and trails have been found in Senegal, Chad, and Sudan. In 2000 and 2001 they were sighted and camera trapped in a protected area near Palmyra in Syria.

In Asia, there is a recent new country distribution records for Syria, around the area of Palmyra. It is not known if the small populations of Sand Cat in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province are connected to the central Asian population via Afghanistan. In central Asia it occurs east of the Caspian sea throughout the Karakum Desert from the Ustyurt Plateau in the northwest to the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south extending through the Kyzylkum Desert to the Syr Darya River and the northern border to Afghanistan. It has been recorded from the desert regions west of the Caspian Sea (in northern Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), but is not known if the distribution is or was continuous to the Arabian peninsula.

Subspecies and their distribution

After Loche’s first description of the animal, several subspecies have been described. Of these following are recognized today:

  • Felis margarita margarita (Loche 1858) – Occurs from Algeria southwards to  Asben in northern Nigeria, Sinai and Arabia.
  • Felis margarita thinobius (Ognev 1926) – Occurs from the Karakum Desert to the southeast of Türkmenbay, Turkmenistan and southern Kyzylkum to the west of Bukhara in Uzbekistan and in the Transcaspian area to Repetek.
  • Felis margarita meinertzhageni (Pocock 1938) – Occurs in Algerian Sahara.
  • Felis margarita airensis (Pocock 1938) – Occurs in Sudan.
  • Felis margarita scheffeli (Hemmer 1974) – Occurs in the Nushki desert of Pakistan.
  • Felis margarita harrisoni (Hemmer, Grubb and Groves, 1976) – Occurs in the Arabian Peninsula

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Ecology and behavior

Sand cats are solitary creatures. Opposite sexes come closer only during the mating season. Extreme temperature forces these cats to live in burrows, which can either be abandoned by porcupines or the foxes. Holes in the ground dug by gerbils or other rodents are also used after enlarging them. Burrows are usually about 5 ft deep with single entrance, but two or three have also been observed. Before retiring below the ground at dawn, the same lookout position was adopted at the mouth of the burrow. Burrows are used interchangeably by different cats, but it is not done during the day. In winter, cats stay in the sun during the day, but in hot summer they are active primarily during twilight (i.e. dawn and dusk) and also in the night.

Like many of their cousins sand cats too communicate using scent markings by urine spraying and claw marks on various objects. Unlike many other felids they do not leave their feces in the open. Vocalization is similar to domestic cats, but while seeking a mate they also make loud, high-pitched barking sounds. Sand cats make a short, rasping bark in connection with mating activity. Hearing plays an important role in intraspecific communication.

Even on the loose sand of desert floor they are quite agile. With belly to the ground, they move at a fast run punctuated with occasional leaps. In a sudden burst they can sprint at a speed of 30 to 40 km per hour. They have also been recorded traveling long distances of 5–10 km in a single night. In Israel a radio telemetry study suggests large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 sq km. They are active usually throughout the night, hunting and traveling an average of 5.4 km.

They are opportunistic feeders and can eat almost any creature they find in their barren habitat. Generally small rodents are their primary food. Records from Africa show their diet includes spiny mice, young of cape hare, jirds, gerbils and jerboas. They have also been observed hunting small birds like Desert Larks, larks, Greater Hoopes and consuming reptiles like Fringe-toed lizards, Desert Monitor, sandfish, horned and sand vipers and short-fingered geckos and insects. Sand cats are expert diggers and can extract their prey out from the ground. They bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.

Reproduction and life cycle

Sand cats have oestrus of five to six days, during which they call loudly and increase the frequency of scent marking. About 66 days after the successful mating an average litter of three blind and helpless kittens is produced in April or May. In some areas, they may give birth to two litters in a year. New born weigh 39 to 80 grams at birth, with spotted pale yellow or reddish fur. Their growth rate is fast, reaching three quarters of the adult size within first five months. They become fully independent by the end of their first year, and reach sexual maturity by the time they are 14 months old. They have been recorded living up to 13 years in captivity. Life expectancy in the wild has not been documented.

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Threats

Major threat to the sand cat is habitat degradation. Arid ecosystem which is already quite vulnerable is being rapidly degraded by human activity and the settlements. Livestock grazing is taking major toll as the cat’s small-mammal prey-base is depleting due to increasing pressure on the available vegetation. In addition to this it is experiencing fluctuations on the large scale due to drought and increasing desertification. They often get killed unintentionally in traps laid out for foxes and jackals by inhabitants, but there are cases where people kill them intentionally in retaliation for killing their chickens. Feral and domestic cats and dogs also pose threat as they come in direct competition with sand cats for food and also transmit diseases.

Docility of sand cat was also a reason why many of them were collected for pet trade during the 1960s, which resulted in many of them dying in captivity. Due to the uncontrolled nature of this trade, the feline faced a drastic decline in its population.

Conservation

Felis margarita is not well studied because it lives in such vast desert locations that it is hard to track the true number of individuals. It has been listed as Near Threatened by IUCN since 2002 due to its occurrences at low densities and is often described as rare. It is listed on CITES Appendix II, which means that the species is not currently threatened by extinction, but could be if not monitored. The cat appears to have markedly patchy and disjunct distribution. Degradation of desert ecosystems is widely recognized as an urgent conservation problem and could result in drop of >30 per cent in the population, caused by declining small mammal prey base.

To protect the cat from further decline hunting has been prohibited in Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Niger, Israel, Algeria, Kazakhstan and Mauritania. On the other hand no legal protection exists in United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Mali and Morocco.

A sand cat reintroduction project has been started by The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo in Israel’s Arava Desert. Several cats that were born in captivity in the zoo were kept in an acclimatization enclosure, but they did not survive subsequent release into the wild.

Susceptibility to respiratory diseases

Respiratory diseases and infection of the upper respiratory tract is the biggest killer of captive sand cats that are highly sensitive to these ailments. Captive sand cats die most commonly due to the infectious rhinotracheitis. Since they are highly susceptible to respiratory infections, these cats have to be kept in very dry environment where humidity and temperature do not fluctuate.

There were 200 captive individuals in 45 institutions globally as on July 2009. In May 2010, twelve Association of Zoos and Aquariums – accredited institutions participating in the Species Survival Plan had 29 sand cats.

It was the Al Ain Zoo, located in the foothills of the Jebel Hafeet Mountains in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, which announced the first-ever captive birth of two sand cat kittens in January 2010 following in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedure at its facilities.

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