The year is 1998. Humans have so far, walked on the moon, sent satellites into the farther reaches of our solar system and taken pictures of all of our orbiting planets. We have even captured photos from the surface of Mars. However, before this time one cat had almost completely eluded humans entirely.
Before 1998 only two photographs of the Andean mountain cat existed. So little was known about this cat we didn’t know what they preyed on, didn’t know whether they were nocturnal or diurnal, didn’t know how large their range was, we didn’t even know if they were social cats like lions or a solitary species as is the norm with cats. It was a challenge to big to ignore for wild cat specialist and ecologist Jim Sanderson who, armed with a picture detailing a vague location and his camera, set off to research the world’s most elusive cat.
A highly motivated Sanderson headed off to Chile in the hopes of uncovering the mysteries that this elusive cat held. As the weeks passed, sat in a tent in near freezing conditions no cats could be seen or heard. It wasn’t until after 6 weeks camped out in the Andes that Sanderson finally saw what he was looking for. Less than one hundred feet away from his tent was a rather scruffy looking, ash coloured cat sat watching him. From this moment on we have been lucky enough to witness the mysteries of this cat unravel. After watching and researching these cats, taking a number of photos and documenting their habits and behaviours Jim Sanderson returned home and formed the Andean Cat Alliance (AGA). Thanks to this organisation and others such as Seeking the Andean cat we now have numerous photos, videos, and their secrets are finally coming to light.
The research Jim Sanderson and the Andean Cat Alliance have done in such a short amount of time is impressive however the Andean Cat remains, like many of the small wild cat species, hugely under researched and conservation efforts are few and far between.
So what do we now know about the mysterious Andean Mountain Cat?
It was first described by an Italian Naturist called Professor Emilio Cornalia who, at the time, was director of the Museum of Natural History in Milan. The specimen was donated by Paolo Mantegazza, a doctor, scientist and anthropologist and famous traveller. He found the specimen in Argentina on the border with Bolivia at an altitude of 1500 ft. It was donated to the museum in 1864 and promptly identified as a new species and given its scientific name Leopardus jacobita, in honour of Jacobita Mantegazza, the discoverer’s Argentinian wife.
As we can see from photos, these cats are roughly the same size as your domestic cat at home however have much longer, bushier tails. Unlike their arboreal cousins who use their tails for balance, Andean mountain cats use their long bushy tails for warmth, wrapping them around their face and feet like a scarf. They have a colouration typically described as being ash with darker slightly orange markings. Their tails have 6-9 clear rings whilst their backs have short striped markings and spots. The adult male Andean Mountain cat is 22 to 65 inches long from the head to the base of the tail; the tail adds a further 16-18 inches. It weighs roughly between 3-5 kg.
We now know these cats can be found at high altitudes across the Andes. They have now been documented not only in Argentina but also Chile, Bolivia and Peru.
Whilst its hunting methods and prey still require further research, its likely that it gets most of its meals hunting mountain viscacha, a large type of rodent that looks like a large long tailed rabbit that live high in the Andes. Other meals will be mice, cavies and hares. It’s thought chinchillas would have played a large part in their diet given their synonymous distribution however due to over hunting for its fur chinchillas are now critically endangered and reduced to just a few numbers. It shares this prey source with one other small wild cat, the Pampas cat (Leopardus Colocolo). There have been reported sightings by cattle headers in Patagonia who report Andean Mountain cats taking down small goat kids.
Much is still unknown about the mysterious Andean cat however we now believe they are solitary cats and mostly nocturnal hunters with crepuscular activity with dusk and dawn being important hunting periods given that it coincides with the activity peaks of the viscachas it preys upon. Their home range seems to depend on the availability of viscachas. Only a small number of cats have ever been radio collared, of that has been published one female in the Bolivian Andes was studied for seven months and her home range was estimated at 65.5km² .
In terms of its Lineage it was originally given its own genus Oreailurus but, maybe unsurprisingly, it was later placed firmly in the Leopardus lineage along with many of the other cats found in Latin America such as Geoffroys cats, Oncillas, Pampas cats and Ocelots and Margays. They separated from the main Felinae linage around 2.9 million years ago.
Thanks to the Andean Cat Alliance and other Andean Mountain cat projects such as Seeking the Andean Cat we are discovering more about this elusive cat every day. We know estimate that there are around 1,900 Andean mountain cats remaining in the wild. There are currently no captive individuals in zoos or sanctuaries being studied. Its main threats come from humans and dogs. Thanks to the efforts of the ACA hunting of these cats is now banned in all four Countries they’re found in. Sadly the Andean Mountain cat is often persecuted by locals who kill them due to superstitions. The ACA are now actively working with locals in these areas to raise awareness and combat this issue.
To follow the progress being made in researching these amazing and elusive cats we strongly recommend following both the Andean Cat Alliance and Seeking the Andean Cat. Both have Facebook accounts who provide updates on their research plus amazing photos and videos so you can keep track of the incredible work they’re doing in unearthing the mysteries about these cats. As with almost all small cat research, its is hugely underfunded so any help that you can provide ether by sharing their project or via personal donations will go along way to helping research these cats. Until we know more about their hunting methods and threats to their existence conservation projects are very difficult to conduct successfully.
Click on the links below to find out more and help fund research for the worlds most elusive cat:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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….
Of course our domestic cats have their own unique way of camouflaging themselves too, brilliantly adapted from over 4,000 years of domestication….
A look at how cats use their whiskers in the wild:
Throughout these blog updates, we have focused on many attributes that make small wild cats special. Whether that be paws, tails or even ears, cats have evolved over time to have some unique morphology that makes them brilliant at what they do.
Today we focus on a feature that is little understood and something we are learning about more and more as science progresses. Whiskers!
A cat’s whiskers, or to give them their proper name, vibrissae, have some amazing functions. Many of these functions give us an insight into how cats do some of the incredible feats we often see. The word vibrissae comes from the Latin word “vibrio” meaning to vibrate. This gives us an idea of how they work.
Small wild cats have whiskers that can be found in four or more parallel rows above the upper lip, either side of the nose. Some above each eye on the forehead, some on their cheeks and then some smaller hairs on the back of their wrists and the backs of their legs. Unlike ordinary hairs, vibrissae are thicker and have their roots set far deeper into the dermis,
the thick layer of living tissue below the epidermis. Each vibrissa is contained in a follicle approximately five times larger than that associated with regular hairs and unlike human hair, they can be deliberately manipulated to serve a purpose.
To investigate what some of these purposes might be it’s worth looking at a few individual species and how these specific cats use their vibrissae to aid in hunting and in avoiding being prey. A good example of this would be nocturnal gymnast the margay. Jumping high in the treetops from branch to branch in near pitch black conditions takes more than just excellent night vision. Amazingly Margays use their vibrissae to navigate between branches by processing subtle vibrations, picking up air currents flowing around objects, therefore, allowing them to accurately judge distances. Often they will manipulate the vibrissae to face forward, taking in as much information as possible, especially when hunting in near total darkness.
A cat who uses his whiskers in a slightly different way to the others is the unique fishing cat. As you may imagine, fishing cats have lives that are quite different from many other cats in the feline family. Because of this, they have developed slightly different special abilities; a rudder-like tail to aid with direction when swimming, two layers of fur, one acting like a wetsuit to keep it warm, slightly webbed feet to aid in walking over wet and boggy terrain and specially adapted vibrissae. In fact, fishing cats vibrissae are so sensitive it uses them similarly to how you may find a seal would using theirs.
Fishing cats have a very unique way of hunting. Waiting patiently and very still they will sit by the waters edge dipping the tips of their whiskers onto the surface of the water. They have then been witnessed tapping the surface very gently with their claws mimicking insect movement in an attempt to attract a fish. Whilst it’s doing this its whiskers, slightly emerged are processing information allowing them to follow the hydrodynamic trails left by swimming fish, even in murky water!
When the fish comes close enough to attack the cat will dive into the water to grab the fish in its mouth and use its semi-retractable claws to stop the slippery fish getting away.
One final way we understand these cats use their whiskers is to determine what gaps they can fit through. When your head is often considerably smaller than the rest of your body this can be vital in helping the cat avoid getting stuck, something that could be life-threatening in the wild but also could cause embarrassment to your cat at home when navigating a cat flap for example. In fact, if you look at your cat at home, much like cats in the wild, you can note that the whiskers on its face will normally expand out to around the same width as their body; this enables them to judge when its safe to squeeze through and when its best to find an alternative route.
So that concludes our fascinating look at cat’s whiskers and why they are so important in enabling them to function in some of the incredible ways that they do. Next month we will be looking at the many different ways that cats use camouflage to help them hunt and stay so incredibly elusive.
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
Often called the Hummingbird cat, the Rusty Spotted cat is one of the smallest of the 33 small wild cat species and is about the size of a domestic kitten. That’s pretty much where the similarities stop though as this little cat is a fearless predator!
Its Latin name, Prionailurus rubiginosus, tells us it’s from the Prionailurus lineage along with other cats distributed across Asia such as the flat-headed cat, fishing cat and the leopard cat. Rubiginosus comes from 17th Century Latin meaning Red. In Sri Lanka, they are known locally as “kola diviya” or “balal diviya”.
Rusty Spotted cats can be found in India and in Sri Lanka with recent sightings also placing them in western Terai of Nepal. So rare is it to see one of these diminutive cats for a long time they were considered to be confined to Southern India. It wasn’t until recent sightings in Gir wildlife sanctuary in the West of India and Tadoba Andhari National Park in the East increased their range. Further sightings in Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in the north now has them placed across the entire Country.
Their head to body length is roughly just 35-50cm with a further 15-25cm tail. They weigh around 1kg for a small female to 1.6kg for a large male. As their name suggests their coats often have a rusty colouration. The fur is short and smooth and they are often seen with rows of red to brown spots that can often form complete stripes on the shoulders and neck. Their underside is often pale or white and the tail is thick and often has a dark tip.
Often thought of as forest hunters we now know that these cats are more adaptive than first believed and can be found thriving in all kinds of habitat from rocky outposts to wooded grasslands and have even been seen inhabiting humid montane forest 2,100m up in Sri Lanka. Rusties are nocturnal hunters and their large eyes are six times more powerful than ours. Their prey generally consists of small rodents such as gerbils, rats and mice. The cats that live near water will also consume reptiles like frogs and toads. To the locals, these cats have a fierce reputation and attacks have even been reported of them taking down prey several times their size such as baby gazelles.
Whilst they are ground hunters they are adept and climbing trees and their hunting approach is to sit and wait, often behind a rock, on a branch or in a bush, listening for its prey before launching itself into an attack.
Like many of the smaller cat species, Rusty-Spotted Cats are woefully understudied and with a lack of information available its difficult to fully understand this cats social behaviours. Being so small also makes it difficult to fit with a radio collar, although this has been managed with other cats of a similar size like the Black-Footed cat.
Like most wild cats they are assumed to be a solitary animal although this is not known for certain. Some archetypal territorial behaviours have been spotted in Sri Lanka as a young male was seen scent marking low hanging branches and bushes, and by rubbing vegetation with the scent glands in his cheeks as is often witnessed in other cat species.
Rusty Spotted Cats are rare and their populations are decreasing. They are currently listed as ‘Threatened’ by the IUCN. Estimating numbers for this cats is extremely difficult due to the lack of information or studies that are available. Threats to this cat, as usual, come mainly from humans. Habitat loss is a real issue for these cats as land farmed for agriculture has a major impact on these species in both India and in Sri Lanka. Given their size they have been seen to prosper in human-made environments but the impact this has on their wellbeing is not yet understood. There have been a few reports of Rusty Spotted cats pelts being sold into the fur trade and they have also been killed either due to being a perceived threat to livestock but also if they are mistaken for young Leopards which are feared.
We couldn’t find any conservation efforts specifically set up to help Rusty-Spotted Cats however Anya Ratnayaka, co-founder of the NGO Small Cat Advocacy & Research and her team are doing great work with wild cats in Sri Lanka including Rusty Spotted cats, fishing cats and jungle cats.
Find out more about their work here: Small Cat Advocacy & Research
How cats communicate with humans is a much-discussed topic of conversation. There are many different theories surrounding domestic cats looking at how and why they try to communicate with us. Some theories even suggest that a cat’s meow has been developed over thousands of years of domestication to mimic that of a human baby to achieve the best possible chance of getting our attention and more importantly our sympathy thus increasing their chance of getting fed.
Today’s post is going to look at how small wild cats not only communicate with each other but also with other animals they encounter, some of which are so ingeniously cunning it would surprise you if you didn’t already know how cunning small wild cats can be.
To start, we should look at the differences between the big cat vocalizations and smaller wild cats.
Whilst you may think that a difference between the so-called ‘big cats’ and the ‘smaller cats’ is the ability to roar. This isn’t the case, and whilst there are forty cats (at time of writing, depending on who you ask) with 7 of these are considered to be ‘big cats’, only four can Roar. Tigers, Lions, Jaguars and Leopards.
The reason for this is to do with a flexible neck bone called the hyoid enabling them to stretch the larynx and allowing them to roar. All other cats have a hyoid bone that is hardened, this stops them from being able to roar but instead allows them to make the purring noise we all know and love.
The one exception to this rule is the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). This large cat has the flexible hyoid bone, but cannot roar or purr. Instead, he makes a rather likeable noise known as ‘chuffing’.
Given that almost all wild cat species are solitary the need to communicate with one another might not easily be done on a face to face basis. To mitigate this problem cats do something called scent marking. Scent marking allows cats who may never meet face to face to communicate vital messages to each other.
Scent marking involves spraying urine and defecating on landmarks. This urine contains vital messages that can be passed on to other cats. Besides marking each cat’s own territory these scents can carry other vital information such as age, sex, and most importantly mating availability.
Psychical encounters between wild cats are typically avoided unless absolutely necessary. When cats do come into contact body language is normally used to diffuse the situation. A submissive stance by one of that cats can normally deter any psychical contact leading to a fight. Cats will try their utmost to avoid a fight due to the fact that in the wild cats rely on their agility and one small injury can often be fatal. On some occasions when neither cat backs down, they can be found to make a rather disturbing wailing noise as can be heard by this rare lynx (Lynx canadensis) encounter caught on camera.
Cats also use their ears to communicate. Something you may have noticed is that cats often have markings or tufts upon their ears making them easier to distinguish. Tigers often have clear white spots on their ears to aid with this silent form of communication. As well as tigers we can see these white markings on other small cats such as margays (Leopardus wiedii), servals (Leptailurus serval) and Bobcats (Lynx rufus)
Often the position of a cat’s ears will tell you about their mood. If a cat has his ears facing forward it often means they are about to attack, the cat is essentially honing his senses in on where he plans to attack. If his ears are back it can mean the opposite in that he doesn’t want to get hurt and is moving his ears out of harm’s way.
Cats from the Lynx lineage have tufts on their ears and whilst we don’t know for certain this is for communication it is one theory that is offered. Tufts aren’t just occurring in Lynx species, we also see them on other cats such as the caracal (Caracal caracal) with its rather accentuated ear tufts. This caracal below certainly seems to be trying to tell us something…
Other non-verbal forms of communication can be found in watching a cats tail. For a domestic cat having your tail in the air can be a sign of happiness or being at ease. In the wild, it seems cats use there tails less for communicating but for balance and for warmth. Cats in the wild will often hold their tails vertically rather than horizontally whilst they walk or in between their legs.
Blinking is another form of communication used by cats, a long, slow blink or wink is often a sign of trust between cats and is something you can try with your cat at home.
Whilst vocalisation between cats is pretty rare and meowing even more so there are a range of other noises that they make. These can have a variety of meanings. A kitten or cub alerting its mother of its whereabouts with a squeak for example. Other noises have been described as yips, grunts, yowls, coughs, chirps and of course purring.
The one vocalisation that seems universal is the hiss. The reason cats hiss is unknown but some theorists suggest it is to mimic the sound of a snake, a creature feared by many in the animal kingdom due to its venomous bite.
Finally, mimicry isn’t something you would normally associate with cats. Birds, maybe but cats aren’t that clever are they? In 2005 a study into margay (Leopardus wiedii) hunting behaviour found exactly that. While making field observations at the Reserva Florestal Adolpho Ducke in Brazil, the researchers spotted a group of eight pied tamarin monkeys (Saguinus bicolor) feeding. Rather than rush the tamarins the margay instead mimicked the cry of a baby tamarin trying to entice the adult tamarins in for a closer look. Unfortunately for the margay this time he was unsuccessful but once again its a show of just how cunning these small wild cats can be.
Just as a side note. Please feel free to use the lynx video as a way of removing your cat from your laptop. Its the first time I have written an article and my cat hasn’t tried to add his own form of commentary.
When Proailurus walked the earth the world would have been a very different place to what we have today. The time is around 25 million years ago and the widely accepted last common ancestor of all of today’s cat family roamed the forests of Eurasia. At this time, during the late Oligocene and Miocene period, it’s environment was most likely warm, humid and similar the rainforests we see in South America.
Approximately 2 feet in length and weighing around 20 pounds, this early cat wasn’t a large predator like the big cats we see today. In fact it wasn’t much bigger than a domestic cat. It is believed to have had a long tail, retractable claws and was at least partially arboreal.
Fast forward to today’s cat family, of which we now have (at time of writing, its tough to keep up!) around 40 species of cat, depending on who you ask, with 33 of these being what we consider small wild cats.
Today’s wild cats have evolved to not only survive but to thrive in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. From the cold mountainous regions of the Himalayas to the hot deserts of the Sahara, adaptability really has saved the cat.
Today’s post looks at how these cats have evolved over time to adapt to their surroundings and how they have each developed unique traits to help them thrive in their specific environments.
We start by looking at a couple of cats whose surroundings are probably closest to that of the Proailurus.
Two small wild cats who are tailor-made for life in the trees are the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the beautiful Margay (Leopardus wiedii).
A close look at these two cats reveal some morphological traits that provide an insight into how these cats have become so adapt to arboreal life.
Both these cats have long tails. These tails act as a great balancing tool, much like how a tightrope walker would use a pole to steady themselves. A clouded leopard’s tail makes up almost half its overall length. They also have large paws to aid with grip when jumping from branch to branch, often stalking prey through the trees before ambushing them from above.
What really separates these cats from your domestic house cat is their hind ankle joints. Both these cats have the ability to rotate these joints 180 degrees allowing them to climb down trees as easily as they can climb up them. You certainly wont find one of these cats needing rescuing from a tree.
Sensitive whiskers called vibrissae that feed information to the cats brain such as air currents and wind direction, help them to judge distances between branches. As you can see from this video Margays really are the gymnasts of the jungle.
Anyone who is owned by a cat will tell you they are never happier than being stretched out in front of the fire. The fact we find cats in some of the coldest environments on Earth often comes as quite a surprise. In fact cats are found at both ends of the temperature spectrum often having to endure both extremes in a calendar year.
Many of these hostile environments are deserts which have huge temperature variations meaning these cats must survive not only in searing heats but also in the freezing cold.
The Sand Cat (Felis margarita) is one of these cats.
Sand cats have been known to live in conditions that sometimes rise to more than 40°C (104°F) with temperatures of the upper layer of sand rising to over 80°C (176°F)!
To protect its feet from the searing temperatures of desert sand this cat has long, dense hairs that grow between its toes. These hairs cover the cats feet pads and also help the cat move across the fine sand whilst creating indistinct tracks making it difficult to follow.
A wild cat who endures plummeting temperatures is the Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), known locally as a Manul.
Like the arboreal cats, these cats also have a good use for their tails. Rather than using their tails for balance these cats use them for warmth. Much like how we might use a scarf to keep our face and neck warm in the winter months these cats wrap their tail around their face and paws when sleeping.
Pallas’s cats have the densest and longest fur in the cat family, a good job when you consider these cats have been found in elevations up to 5,000 feet where the temperatures can fall to below -50 °C.
In the cold, arid regions of the Chinese Steppe where these cats can be found there isn’t much in the way of vegetation. Therefore Pallas’s cats have developed a unique form of camouflage. Their ears are very low set on the side of their head, handy if you don’t want to be seen peering up over rocks whilst hunting for prey. Once prey has been spotted they use shorts bursts of speed whilst crouching low to the ground. They will stop motionless if detected and with their grey coats they look exactly like a rock.
As much as domestic cats like the warmth they also typically dislike the water (those strange cats who have acclaimed YouTube fame aside). It may then comes as a surprise that some wild cats are very fond of getting wet.
Its well known Tigers and Jaguars are at home in the water however the cat most suited to aquatic life is the aptly named Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus). Fishing cats are small, stocky cats found in the wetlands of Asia. Unlike most cats their tails are short and thought to be used much like a rudder in the water rather than for balance in the trees.
A further look at this cats morphology shows, as we can see below, that they have slightly webbed feet. This helps them to move through the water and to walk through the mud without sinking. Having said this they are no more webbed than the bobcat (Lynx rufus) and less so compared with the Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).
What Fishing cats do have is two layers of fur. The first is a short, dense fur that helps to insulate the heat and keep the cat warm, much like a wet suit. The secondary fur is call guard fur, this is longer and gives the cat its coloration to aid with camouflage.
They also have incredibly sensitive vibrissae. They place them on the surface of the water sensing the prey underneath. They can do this even when the water is cloudy. They then wait until a fish is close enough and go in for the kill, either with their mouth or using their only partially sheathed claws like a fishing hook.
As we continue to grow as a population the environments that these cats live in continue to shrink. Whilst cats are proven to be able to adapt to new surroundings the pace that the human population is growing adaptation simply isn’t possible nor should it be expected.
What we need to do is to protect their natural habitats. To research different ways that we as humans can lessen the impact we have on their lives and to allow them to thrive for themselves using the amazing set of skills they each come adept with.
One of the most interesting of the small wild cat lineages is the Lynx lineage. Four separate species in one genus with impressive distribution in the Northern hemisphere from North West Canada to the far reaches of North East Russia. One of the reasons why they are so interesting is that despite millions of years since they took their own specific evolutionary paths, all four cats are still fairly difficult to tell apart. Here we will discuss some of the differences, why we think they have occurred and then some pictures to see if you can tell your Lynx-Rufus from your Lynx-Lynx.
The obvious place to start in regards to telling these cats apart is size, however, this still doesnt offer us a very clear picture. The smallest of the cats is the Bobcat, weighing an average of around 9kg’s and typically about 70cm in length. That being said its understood that the largest bobcats are heavier than the largest Lynx. On average the largest of the Lynx is the Eurasian Lynx who weigh up to 30kg and grow up to around 130 cm in length. Canadian Lynx and Iberian lynx are typically a little shorter in length but also a lot leaner.
In terms of appearance, the biggest noticeable difference is with the Iberian Lynx who tends to have a distinctive ‘beard’ of fur around their faces along with long prominent ear tufts. Whilst all of the Lynx species have ear tufts it seems the bob cats tufts are smaller than the others. The bob cat also has a banded tail with distinctive black stripes whereas the Canada Lynx normally has an all-black tip. Typically a bobcat will have slightly more prominent markings than the Canada Lynx or the Eurasian Lynx however the Iberian Lynx will again, have a more spotted coat.
The best way to tell these cats apart is to watch them move, Bobcats are much more agile and have a much more varied diet, they are also known to be much bolder than there larger cousins. Canada Lynx have a very distinctive look due to their habitat. Hunting in the snow means they have much larger, wider paws than the others, with the ability to spread its toes to help distribute the weight, much like a snow shoe. They also have longer back legs than front giving them an awkward look. Their back feet are also much longer and look similar to that of a rabbit.
All in all it’s a difficult job telling the Lynx species apart, they all have the stunning reflective eyes whereby they get their name, they all have the small bobbed tails and stunning ear tufts and if you spot any of them you can consider yourself very lucky indeed!
Cats names and their meanings are often fascinating (at least in our eyes). Many small wild cats are named after the naturalist that discovered them, or more accurately, were the first to document them for science. Some of these cats also have interesting native names or their scientific name interestingly relates to their behaviours or appearance. Here we look at just some of the interesting members of the small wild cat family and how their names came about. Click on the pictures below to discover more about where that cats name derived from.
Pallas’s cat or Manul:
The Pallas’s cat was named after the German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who first described it in 1776. The name Manul comes from the Mongolian мануул meaning ‘wild cat’ and in 1858, the Russian explorer and naturalist Nikolai Severtzov proposed the name Otocolobus for the species. ‘Oto’ coming from the Greek word for ‘ear‘ and ‘kolobus’ meaning ‘ugly‘. A little harsh for such a pretty cat in our opinion.
Caracals were first scientifically described by another German naturalist called Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1777. The name “caracal” is composed of two Turkic words: kara, meaning black, and kulak, meaning ear. Caracals appear to have been religiously significant to the Egyptian culture and Caracal ear tufts, referred to as ‘umm risha’t’ (mother of feathers), are often depicted in ancient tombs.
Geoffroy’s cat is named after French zoologist Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire following his travels to South America in the early 19th century. His name is also honoured in that of a number of other species, including Geoffroy’s spider monkey, Geoffroy’s bat, and Geoffroy’s tamarin.
The name “lynx” comes from Middle English via Latin from the Greek word λύγξ, which derived from the Indo-European word leuk meaning light or brightness in reference to the reflective nature of the cats beautiful eyes. This cat has a prominent role in mythology and legend has it that its supernatural eyesight has the ability to see through solid objects. Lynx is also the name of a star constellation in the night sky defined by Jahannes Hevelius in 1687. The name was said to be chosen due to the fact the constellation is so faint its only able to be seen with the eyes of a Lynx.
Much like the Caracal, Servals were first described by German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber In 1858. The name Serval is thought to have derived from the medieval Latin words Lupas cervalis literally meaning; wolf-like-dear. A fitting description in our eyes. Russian naturalist Nikolai Severtzov proposed the genus name Leptailurus Serval. Leptailurus believed to have been derived from the Medieval Greek λεπταλέος or λεπτός meaning fine or delicate, again, a fitting description.
One of the most elusive of the small wild cats if the Marbled cat. Due to a lack of research not much is known about this beautiful cat.
Through camera trap sightings we think this cat diurnal and we understand they hunt both in the trees and upon the forest floor. Their appearance is, as you can see, rather striking. In comparison to other cats the Marbled cats head is relatively small and is also quite rounded with a short face and rounded ears. Apart from its stunning pelt its main feature would be its long, fluffy tail. Sometimes its tail can actually be longer than the head and body itself.
Distributed across Asia these cats can be found in Cambodia, India, Thailand, China, India, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia. There is also growing evidence that the two species that inhabit Borneo and Sumatra maybe two separate species much like the Sundra Clouded Leopards. They like to live in trees and can be found in many different type of forest depending on its location.
Due to the lack of research of this cats its numbers aren’t really known but Scientists believe their numbers to be around 10,000 and shrinking due to their disappearing habitat.
Their morphology is suited to both life in the trees and on the ground. As you can see from the pictures the big bushy tail will obviously help with balance for an arboreal life and its large paws help with grip when jumping between branches.
Like the Margay and the Clouded Leopard cat Marbled Cats also have adapted ankle joints that rotate 180 degrees helping them climb down trees head first.