Pallas’s cat : Felid with longest and densest fur

Pallas's Cat (CC BY-SA 2.0)A member of the mono-specific genus, Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), also called manul, was named after the German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who first described it in 1776 under the binomial Felis manul. The word ‘manul’ has its roots in the Mongolian language. Due to the cat’s long fur, stocky body and flattened face Pallas had erroneously suggested that it was ancestor of the Persian breed of domestic cats.

One of the few longhaired cat from Asia, its present-day scientific name, Otocolobus, comes from the Greek language, which means ‘ugly-eared’. In Greek language ‘Oto’ means ear and ‘kolobus’ is for ugly. Pallas’ cat is a small wild felid with a widespread but patchy distribution in the grasslands and montane steppes of Central Asia. It is negatively affected by habitat degradation, prey base decline, and hunting, and has therefore been classified as Near Threatened by IUCN since 2002.

Taxonomic history

As already mentioned above, this cat was initially placed in the genus Felis in 1776, but later on in 1858, Russian explorer and naturalist Nikolai Severtzov proposed the name Otocolobus. The zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock, after describing several skulls in detail came to the conclusion that manul is an aberrant form of Felis, hence he recognized the taxonomic classification of Otocolobus in 1907.

After the results of genetic studies, the monotypic genus Otocolobus has been placed with the genera Felis and Prionailurus in the tribe Felini, because of a close phylogenetic relationship. It is estimated that Otocolobus manul diverged from the ancestors of leopard cat about 5.19 million years ago.

Felid with longest and densest fur of any cat

A very old breed, but has not changed much since the separation from its ancestor — leopard cat. About the size of a domestic cat it has perfectly evolved for the harsh and cold environment. Pallas’s cat weighs 2.5 to 4.5 kg with body length of 46 to 65 cm and 21 to 31 cm long tail. Its appearance with stocky posture and long dense fur makes it look much bigger and heavier than its actual size and weight. Extremely thick and heavy coat provides the cat a very good insulation against cold as it spends much of its time on frozen ground and snow. The fur, which is longer and denser than any other felid species, is nearly twice as long on the belly and tail as on top and sides. The length and density of the fur also changes seasonally, growing longer and heavier in winter. The coat varies in colour from light gray to Pallas's Cat with pin hole pupil (public domain)yellowish buff to russet; the felid goes through two major colour phases. In winter coat is greyer and less patterned or more uniform in colour, while in the summer it has more stripes and ochre colours. The white tips of the hairs give the animal a frosted silvery look. There are dark spots on the forehead and four clear black rings on the dark tipped tail. Due to white chin, cheeks and beard combine with the flat face the cat often looks very monkey-like when observed from certain angles. Two narrow dark streaks run each side of the head from the corners of the eyes. Besides the chin, throat is also white, merging into the grayish, silky fur of the underparts.

Otocolobus manul has much flatter face than average, which means that it has a shorter jaw with fewer teeth than is typical among cats, with the first pair of upper premolars missing, but the canine teeth are large. This skull shape puts the cat in the genus Prionailurus (a genus of four species of small, spotted wild cats found in Asia: Rusty-spotted cat, Flat-headed cat, Leopard cat and Fishing cat) within the group felini.

Concentric white and black rims around the eyes accentuate face’s rounded shape. Pallas’s cat has an attribute which is unique among cats. Unlike other felids, its pupils contract into small circular dots – just as the pupils of hominids – during bright light, whereas all other cats’ pupils contract into vertical slits. Legs are proportionately shorter than those of other cats along with unusually short claws. Ears are small, rounded and set very low and wide apart.

Distribution

Pallas’s cats are best adapted to cold arid environments and are found in steppe regions of Central Asia, where they occur at elevations of up to 5,050 m (16,570 ft) in the Tibetan Plateau. Across the plateau they are considered widespread but nowhere very common. They are found in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia, much of western China, Jammu-Kashmir in India, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. They are also found in the Transbaikal regions of Russia and less frequently in the Altai, a mountain range in East-Central Asia. Their presence in the eastern Sayan Mountains, a range in southern Siberia in Russia, was reported for the first time in 1997. Mongolia is believed to be the stronghold of Pallas’s cat, where more than 25 cats were radio-collared in the steppe grasslands of the central Mongolia in 2007. According to the estimates of 2007 the Tyva and Chita regions in Russia had the largest populations, believed to be about 2,000-2,200 and 2,100-3,000, respectively. Numbers in Altai and Buryatia republics were around 450-550 and 250-350.

Pallas's Cat's Range (CC BY-SA 3.0)Populations surviving in the Caspian Sea region, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are believed to be declining and becoming more and more isolated. Until the early 1970s, only two cats were recorded in the Transcaucasus, both were seen near the Araks River in northwestern Iran, but no records existed from Azerbaijan.

In recent years, several Pallas’s cats were photographed for the first time during camera trapping surveys:

  • 2008 — in Iran’s Khojir National Park;
  • 2012 April — in Bhutan’s Wangchuck Centennial Park;
  • 2012 autumn — above 4,100 m (13,500 ft) in the Jigme Dorji National Park;
  • 2012 July — in Pakistan’s Qurumber National Park above 3,400 m (11,200 ft);
  • 2012 and 2013 December — in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area above 4,200 m (13,800 ft).

Distribution of subspecies

Three subspecies are recognized:

  • m. manul (originally described by Pallas in 1776) — found in the northern part of the range: from Jida River south of Lake Baikal to eastern Siberia;
  • m. nigripecta (described by Hodgson in 1842) — occurs in Tibet and Indian Kashmir;
  • m. ferruginea (described by Ognev in 1928) — found in the south-western part of the range: the mountain ridge of Missanev, Kopet-Dag Mountains, Transcaspia, south-western Turkestan, northern Iran, Baluchistan and Afghanistan.

Ecology and Habitat

Pallas’s cats are generally associated with high grasslands and shrub steppe. Much of their habitat is highland, regions between sub-alpine and montane. In fact these cats can be found at altitudes of up to five kilometers above sea level. In central Mongolia, home ranges were found to be noticeably large for this small felid, though it is not clear if such large ranges are typical for the species. During the study these cats were found having strong connection with rocky, steep areas and were rarely found in open grasslands, where they may be more vulnerable to predation by larger carnivores.

Cats, found in China, feed primarily on pikas, small rodents, birds, hares and marmots. They seem apparently numerous in the areas where pikas and voles are in good numbers and not living under deep snow cover. In Mongolia, they have different menu. Analysis of scats has shown that gerbils (a small rodent) and jerboas (hopping desert rodents) are their main prey, with lambs of Argali sheep taken during the spring. Their populations depend heavily on their small mammal prey base and fluctuates widely with the increase and decrease in their numbers.

Behavior

Pallas’s cats are particular about their habitat. Living throughout central Asia, from western Iran to western China they live in caves, crevices or burrows dug by other animals. These solitary cats can be active at any time of the day, but they are predominantly crepuscular.

Both sexes scent mark their territory which may spread out two to three miles and spend their day in their dens or in the burrows dug up by marmots. Their hunting expeditions usually start late in the afternoons. These cats are not fast runners, and hunt mostly by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. The colour of their fur blends in well with the rocky scenery, and most victims never see their peril until it is too late. They have also been observed waiting outside the den of prey species and catch it as it comes out. If the holes are shallow, they “fish” out the prey with their paws. These cats feed largely on diurnally active prey species, which include pikas, voles, gerbils and chukar partridges and sometimes catch young marmots. Pallas’s cats are shy and very antisocial, impossible to domesticate.

Not much is known about their social system or communication, but they yelp or growl when excited, making sounds similar to a small dog. They can also purr.

Reproduction

Pallas's Cat kitten (CC BY 3.0)Due to extreme climate in the cat’s native range their breeding season is relatively short, with oestrus lasting 26 to 42 hours, shorter than many other felids. Since there is only a short window of relatively benign conditions in which a kitten can survive, their kittens mature quickly. Mating takes place in February-March, after which a litter of three to eight kittens are born typically in April or May, in sheltered dens, lined with dried vegetation, feathers and fur, after a gestation period of 66 to 75 days. Since cats face high infant mortality due to extreme climatic conditions, probably large litters compensate these losses. At birth kittens weigh around 90 grams and possess a thick coat of fuzzy fur, which is replaced by the adult coat after around two months. When they are four months old they begin hunting with their mothers and attain adult size at six months and reach sexual maturity at around 12 months.

Threats

The most serious threat for the cat is depletion of its prey base due to poisoning and over-hunting. The cat has long been hunted for its fur in relatively large numbers in Russia, China and Mongolia, although international trade in its pelts has largely ceased since late 1980s. Mongolia is the only country that permits hunting of the cat.

Locals say Pallas’s Cats are often shot because they can be mistaken for marmots that are commonly hunted and trapped incidentally in leghold traps set for wolves and foxes and snares set for marmots and hares. In addition to the habitat degradation by domestic livestock and expansion of agricultural activities, poisoning of pika and marmots in Central Asia where they are considered to be vectors for bubonic plague, and in western and northern China where they are considered to compete with domestic stock for grazing are other major factors affecting the survival of the cat. Poisonings reduce the prey base. According to a study, in the 1990s when livestock population had gone down in Russia the population of the cat had improved considerably, now when the livestock number is again picking up across steppe areas threat is again looming large on the cat’s existence. Besides this cat’s range in Russia is also quite fragmented which poses high level of risk for many subpopulations, especially in Buryatia Republic.

Domestic dogs also kill these cats. While Mongolia has not recorded any trophy exports, skin exports have grown since 2000, with 143 reported exported in 2007.

Conservation

Listed in the Appendix ll of the CITES, hunting of Otocolobus manul is prohibited in all the range countries. Mongolia is the only exception, where Pallas’s cat has no legal protection despite being classified as Near Threatened in the country. Trophy hunters can purchase a hunting license to export trophies. It is estimated that about a thousand hunters are in Mongolia alone. While the country has not recorded any trophy exports, skin exports have grown since 2000, with 143 reported exported in 2007 (UNEP-WCMC Cites trade database, 2008).

In Captivity

In 2010, there were 47 Pallas’s cats in 19 institutions associated with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and four litters were expected. Three deaths and no births took place in 2009. These cats have the highest percentage of 30-day mortality of any small cat at 44.9 per cent. On one hand keeping these cats healthy in captivity is difficult, on the other the seasonality of their reproduction makes it difficult to control their reproductive cycles. It is a seasonal breeder and changes from a normal photoperiod (with artificial light) can disrupt the breeding season. Although they breed well, but their survival rates are low owing to infections, caused due to an underdeveloped immune system. Especially the young cats are highly susceptible to toxoplasmosis. In their natural high-altitude habitat, they would normally not be exposed to viruses causing infections.

Five kittens were born in June 2010 in the Red River Zoo in Fargo. For the first time an artificially inseminated female gave birth to three kittens in June 2011 at Cincinnati Zoo. Three other kittens were born in May 2013 in the Nordens Ark in Sweden. In captivity Pallas’s cats have been found living up to 11.5 years. It is not known for how long they live in the wild.