The secrets behind how small wild cats remain so elusive:

Many creatures in the animal kingdom use camouflage to help them hide from predators and for hunting. This is especially important for cats as many of them use stalking as their prime technique for catching prey. Today we explore how cats use camouflage to help them hide, and hunt, and what other tricks they use to stay so elusive.

A Pallas’s cat hides in the snow 📷 Vlad Elbakyan

To look closely at cats and their unique skills in camouflage, we first have to look at their habitats. Cats can be found in many different places and, as you would expect, each different habitat requires different a form of camouflage. As we can see in the picture above, the Pallas’s cat is one of the few cats who live in a cold, arid and sometimes snowy environment. Because of this, their morphology, camouflage and techniques in hunting and hiding are quite different to many of the other species of cat.

Pallas’s cat 📷 Vladimir Wrangel

If we first look at their morphology, their ears are very small and low set on their heads. This suggest hearing doesn’t play an important part in helping them hunt, something that’s unusual in felids. However having small, low set ears helps them to hide when peering out from above a rock or crevice. Typically their fur is a grey-tawny color, helping them blend in with their rocky habitat but in semi-desert terrain they can be more of a rusty colour. This shows that their habitat can sometimes affects their colouration. When hunting they are often seen crouching low to the ground, motionless, giving themselves the appearance of a harmless rock. They will then use short bursts of speed to ambush their prey. Another cat who adopts this method is the Pampas cat, who also lives in a habitat often with little vegetation to use as cover.

Pallas’s cat 📷 M. A. Adibi
Scottish Wild Cat 📷 Scottish Wild Cat Haven

European wild cats can also be found in snowy conditions. The difference with this cat is that they often live in places where there is a lot of foliage. Often in cases like this, cats use stripes to hide the outline of their bodies. The stripes look like shadows allowing them to move undetected through the undergrowth. Scottish wild cats like this one have big bushy tails to keep them warm, decorated with beautiful stripes to keep them hidden whilst hunting among birch trees.

Other types of camouflage are a little less obvious than that of the Pallas’s cat or the Scottish wild cat. If, for example, you were to take the clouded leopard out of its natural habitat it would be hard to imagine how its beautiful coat helps it to hide in its jungle environment. The reason for this was originally put forward by British evolutionary biologist Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton in the late 19th Century. He suggested that ‘shading’; the different colorations and patterns, are used to counteract the effects of light. For many animals the use of light and shape help provide them with a 3D picture that will determine prey from predator. Having different coloration’s and patterns blurs this image and gives the cats that split second advantage, allowing them to get close enough to attack. This also applies to cats who have stripes and spots such as Tigers or leopards.

Sunda Clouded Leopard 📷 Alain Compost

Interestingly, the Sunda Clouded leopard, like this one, differs very slightly in appearance from their mainland cousins. Their coats are naturally slightly darker and their patterns are smaller and closer together, could this be because their jungle habitat is denser and therefore less light gets in?

Marbled Cat 📷 BigCatRescue

Like the clouded leopard, Marbled cats also have a coat with cloud like shapes with dark edges. Again, its thought this is to copy the shapes of sunlight coming through the tree canopy thus providing this cat not only a stunning coat, but vital camouflage from predators and prey.

Whilst not being officially a ‘small wild cat’ its worth noting the fascinating theory on Cheetah cubs. When they’re born, Cheetahs cub’s nape, shoulders and backs are covered in long hairs collectively called a mantle. Its believed that this gives the cheetahs a cunning disguise gifting them the appearance of a honey badger, a renowned and much feared adversary for predators who might potentially view the cubs as prey such as lions, leopards and hyenas. This form of camouflage is called mimicry and is often seen in the animal kingdom but is rare among cats and other large predators.

So how would you fare as a poor Steppe Pika in the mountains of Mongolia or a Desert rat in the Sahara? Test your skills in the pictures below and see if you can spot the cats before they spot you….

Caracal 📷 Jacques Briam 
Mountain Lion 📷 @MilwaukeeCougar
Serval 📷 Ingo Gerloch
Sand Cat 📷 Alexander Sliwa

Snow Leopard 📷 Caters News Agency

Of course our domestic cats have their own unique way of camouflaging themselves too, brilliantly adapted from over 4,000 years of domestication….

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