As discussed in previous blogs such as why are there no cats in Australia, its widely accepted that all wild cats evolved from Proailurus (meaning ‘before the cat’) around 30 million years ago when they first appeared in the forests of Eurasia. At this time Europe was a vast sub-tropical forest; at this time a satellite image may have resembled something like this:
Given the theory that all cats have evolved from one common ancestor suited to the tropics, it’s amazing to think that we now have cats that are so specifically adapted to all kinds of different types of climates.
From the deserts of the Sahara, the Sand Cat is one of these cats. Far removed from its tree climbing, forest-dwelling ancestors these cats are perfectly suited to a life in the arid deserts. Today’s post looks at exactly how they cope.
Firstly it’s worth pointing out that living in the desert isn’t just about dealing with the hot desert sun but dealing with huge temperature variations. Temperatures in the Sahara can reach up to 51ºC during the day and then drop to -0.5 ºC at night. Sand cats living in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan have to cope with temperatures in the winter months dropping to as low as -25 ºC!
Sand cats were first documented by Captain Victor Loche after an encounter in the area Négonça in the Sahara in 1858. Their scientific name, Felis Margarita, is in reference to the leader of the French expedition party at the time, General Magueritte.
A close relative of the Jungle Cat, Black-footed Cat and African Wildcat they lie in the Felis Lineage, the last lineage to diverge and the youngest branch of the cat family splitting approximately 3.4 million years ago.
A diminutive cat even by small wild cat standards, this cat typically measures around 40-50cm in length and weighs around 3.5kg for a fully grown male. It has a pale, sandy coloured coat with indistinct markings and has a large, broad head with huge, slightly low set ears.
The distribution of the sand cat, as you would imagine, is typically confined to sandy, desert regions and is very unevenly distributed. This makes them difficult to track and therefore to map. Whilst being a desert specialist and capable of inhabiting areas where rainfall is as low as 20mm per year the Sand cat avoids areas dominated by shifting sand dunes that are devoid of any sustainable vegetation.
Looking at their skulls we can see the Sand cat has a shortened but large braincase, wide zygomatic arches and large eye sockets facing forward. Similar to other desert animals their tympanic bullae are larger than normal and low set on its head. This suggests specialized hearing and an animal that closely listens for noises or vibrations beneath the sand.
As you would imagine finding water isn’t something that comes easy for an animal living in the desert and whilst the Sand cat will happily drink from free-standing water, it gets most of its required water from its prey. It is understood they can survive up to two months on water gained solely from its prey.
To catch its prey the sand cat has a distinct way of moving, staying close to the ground, using its large, low set ears to listen for potential prey such as gerbils. They will stalk their prey and then move using quick bursts of speed up to 30 to 40 kilometres per hour to catch their desired kill. It has also been known to attack birds, reptiles and even venomous snakes.
We previously mentioned that Sand cats have been known to live in temperatures that sometimes rise to more than 50°C (104°F) however temperatures of the upper layer of sand sometimes rise to over 80°C (176°F)!
To protect its feet from the searing temperatures of desert sand this cat has developed long, dense hairs that grow between its toes. These hairs cover the cat’s feet pads and also help the cat move across the fine sand whilst also creating indistinct tracks making it difficult to follow.
To hide from predators it uses camouflage. Its sandy coloured coat helps it to blend in with its surroundings and it crouches low to the ground often closing its eyes to appear almost invisible.
Sand cats are mainly nocturnal and crepuscular animals, avoiding the intense heat of the desert during the day by sheltering in burrows. Unlike most cats who are good climbers or excellent swimmers, this cats skill is the ability to dig, something rare in the cat family. They are also opportunists and if presented with the chance will use burrows dug by other animals such as foxes or porcupines. These dens are often shared by different sand cats but not at the same time. Along with using burrows to protect themselves, they have also been observed hiding leftover food in the sand, coming back to consume it later. You may have a cat at home who will try this, scratching the area near his or her bowl in an attempt to cover their food, maybe this is an instinct left over from their previous, undomesticated days?
In 2017 a group of researchers including Grégory Breton of the global wild cat conservation group Panthera spotted the three young felines as they drove through the Moroccan Sahara in the dark early morning. Its believed it was the first time Sand Cat kittens have been filmed in the wild.
Excitingly they were filmed again in 2018 by the Sand Cat Sahara Team, to watch this new video and to keep up with the team’s exciting work you can follow them on facebook: Sand Cat Sahara Team