The sand cat (Felis margarita) is probably one of the most interesting animals that you’ve never heard of — just imagine something like a domestic cat, but with giant ears, furry paws, a very curious personality, and a desert home. 🙂 Got your attention yet cat lovers? If I have, then enjoy the article below.
The sand cat, alternately known as the sand dune cat or the Arabian dune cat, is the only type of felid that typically calls the desert home. It is currently found throughout the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia — it’s thought that in ancient times the species had a much broader range, but with human expansion their numbers diminished. They live in both sandy deserts and rocky ones, and can live considerable distances from water sources — subsisting almost entirely on the water obtained from prey animals.
They are of a small and stocky stature — possessing short legs and a relatively long tail. Their fur coat is usually a pale sandy color, and doesn’t feature spots or stripes. They tend to have a white belly. They have very thickly furred feet that are thought to help them deal with the extreme temperatures of the desert — like wearing shoes when walking on hot asphalt.
The sand cat typically grows to reach sizes of between 15 to 20 inches — with a foot long tail added to that — and up to weights of between 3-7 lbs. The species possesses a greatly enhanced senses of hearing, as compared to most other cats, thanks to the design of their ear. The design also helps to protect their ears from wind-blown sand.
The species seems to prefer relatively flat or undulating terrain with limited vegetation, and seems to avoid bare sand dunes — which aren’t home to much potential food. They can survive in temperatures as high as 126 °F, and as low as 23 °F — they retreat into their burrows during extreme conditions. Sand cat burrows are typically about 5 feet deep, and dug at an angle.
Sand cats live generally solitary lives, generally only behaving socially during mating season. The species communicates using scent and claw marks, and spraying. They hide their waste underground as domestic cats do. While they make ‘meow’ like sounds as domestic cats do, they also make barking type sounds as well — most often when looking for a mate.
Wikipedia provides more: “Their way of moving is distinct: with belly to the ground, they move at a fast run punctuated with occasional leaps. They are capable of sudden bursts of speed and can sprint at speeds of 30 to 40 km (19 to 25 mi) per hour. They have been recorded to move long distances of 5–10 km (3.1–6.2 mi) in a single night, and a radio telemetry study in Israel suggests large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi). They were active generally throughout the night, hunting and travelling an average of 5.4 km (3.4 mi). Before retiring below ground at dawn, the same lookout position was adopted at the mouth of the burrow. Burrows were used interchangeably by different cats, and the animals did not change burrows during the day.”
“Small rodents are their primary prey, with records from Africa including spiny mice, jirds, gerbils, jerboas, and young of cape hare. They have also been observed to hunt small birds like Greater Hoopoe Lark, Desert Lark, and consume reptiles such as Desert Monitor, Fringe-toed lizards, sandfish, short-fingered gecko, horned and sand vipers, and insects. They can dig rapidly to extract their prey from the ground, and bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.”
They are known to live up to 13 years in captivity, similar to the domestic cat. It’s unknown what the average lifespan in the wild is.
“Habitat degradation is the major threat to the sand cat. Vulnerable arid ecosystems are being rapidly degraded by human settlement and activity, especially livestock grazing. The sand cat’s small-mammal prey-base depends on having adequate vegetation, which may experience large fluctuations due to drought, or declines due to desertification and loss of natural vegetation. They also may be killed in traps laid out by inhabitants of oases targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens. There are occasional reports of animals shot in south-east Arabia. Other localized threats include the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition and through predation and disease transmission.”
“The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo started a sand cat reintroduction project in Israel’s Arava Desert. Several captive-born individuals from the zoo’s population were kept in an acclimatization enclosure, but did not survive subsequent release into the wild.”
Something to note (for those considering the cruel act of trying to keep one as a pet) — sand cats do very poorly in environments that aren’t extremely arid, they possess a great susceptibility to respiratory diseases and infections. Death rates, even in the controlled environment of a zoo, are rather high.
Image Credit: Persian via Wikimedia CC