CatSG

Black-footed cat

Felis nigripes

IUCN Red List: Vulnerable

Weight: 1-2.5 kg
Body length: 37-52 cm
Tail length: 14-20 cm
Longevity: 16 years
Litter size: 1-4 cubs, average 2

Description

The black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) is part of the genus Felis and is considered to be a monotypic species. 

The black-footed cat is one of the smallest cat species in the world and the smallest in Africa. The black-footed cat is named after its black pads and the black underparts of its feet. Its fur is tawny and marked with black and brown spots, merging into broad bands on its neck, legs and on the tail. The tail is relatively short measuring less than 40% of its head-body length and is marked with a black tip. The head of the black-footed cat is similar to that of domestic cats and it has large ears and eyes. The auditory bullae are enlarged with total length about 25% of the skull length. Males are heavier than females. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Botswana (Naron Bushman; Setswana)

tutchu; sebala, lotosi

English

small spotted cat

French

chat à pieds noirs

German

Schwarzfusskatze

Namibia (Nama)

koirus

South Africa (Afrikaans; Xhosa)

Klein gekolde kat, swart poot kat, miershooptier; ingwe yeziduli

Spanish

gato patinegro, gato de pies negros

Status and Distribution

The black-footed cat is classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and it is rare compared to the other small cat species occurring in southern Africa. They occur at low densities. Its distribution is thought to be relatively restricted and patchy. The collection of records over the past five years, also through the use of posters, has shown that records reach their highest densities in a distribution band running north-south through central South Africa. Both East and West of this band there are fewer records. In a long-term study of radio-collared black-footed cats in an area of 60 km² in Benfontein, Northern Cape Province, central South Africa, the density of the black-footed cat was estimated at 0.17 animals/km² in 1998-1999 but at only 0.08 individuals/km² in 2005-2015. In Nuweijaarsfontein, density was estiamted at 0.06 black-footed cats/km². However, both these areas are of high quality and it is thought that in low quality habitats the densities are possibly much lower. 

The population size of black-footed cats is estimated at 13,867 animals of which 9,707 are estimated to be mature. No subpopulation is considered to contain more than 1,000 mature individuals due to the species' patchy distribution. 

The black-footed cat is endemic to southern Africa and occurs primarily in South Africa and Namibia, where it is equally scarce (M. Kusters, pers. comm.) but is also found in Botswana as well as marginally in Zimbabwe and possibly marginally in southern Angola. The northernmost records are from around 19 degrees South in Namibia and Botswana. It is thus a restricted range species with the smallest distribution of any cat species in Africa.

Extant distribution area of the black-footed cat (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).

Habitat

The black-footed cat is a specialist of grassland and semi-desert habitats including arid open savannah with sufficient abundance of small rodents and ground-roosting birds and enough cover for hunting. It mainly inhabits dry regions and prefers open, sparsely vegetated habitats such as open savannah, grasslands, the Karoo and Kalahari regions with sparse shrub and tree cover and a mean annual rainfall of between 100 and 500 mm. It occurs at elevations of 0 to 2,000 m.

Ecology and Behaviour

The black-footed cat is mainly ground-dwellers. It is nocturnal and solitary except for females with dependent cubs, and during the mating season. It is active most of the night and travels on average 8.4 km when it is searching for food. During the day it is only rarely seen since it rests in rocky crevices or close to the abandoned burrows of springhares, ground squirrels or porcupines. In some areas, they use hollowed out dead termitaria, which has earned them the name “anthill tiger”.

Home range sizes vary between regions depending on the available resources and are rather large for a small cat with average size of 8.6-10 km² for females and 16.1-21.3 km² for males. Male home ranges overlap with those of 1-4 females and intra-sexual overlap of home ranges occurs on the outer margins between resident males (3%) but on average 40% between females. Males and females spray mark, especially during mating season.

The black-footed cat stalks its prey on the ground or waits at the burrow entrances of rodents. It can catch birds in the air when they are taking off since it is an excellent jumper. The black-footed cat uses every suitable place for hiding. Scent marking by spraying urine onto tufts of grass and shrubs is thought to play an important role in reproduction and social organisation.

The birth season is not yet fully studied. Wild cats mate between late July and March, leaving only 4 months where no mating occurs. The main mating period starts at the end of winter, in July and August (7 of 11 (64%) matings) resulting in litters born in September/October. One or more males follow the female, which is receptive for only 2,2 days and copulate up to 10 times. The estrus cycle lasts 11-12 days and the gestation period 63-68 days. Cubs open their eyes with 6-8 days, take solid food at 4-5 weeks and kill live prey at 6 weeks. They are weaned with 9 weeks. At 5 months cubs are independent but remain within the range of the mother for longer. Age at sexual maturity is 7 months for females and the onset of spermatogenesis in males occurs at 9 months.

Unusually high levels of creatinine and urea have been found in the blood of the black-footed cat. It also appears to have higher energy requirements than other African wildcats. 

Black-footed cat carrying a kitten.
Black-footed cat family.
Black-footed cat marking a site with urine.
Black-footed cat hidden in a burrow.
Black-footed cat hunting.
Black-footed cat threatening its neighbour.

Prey

The black-footed cat has a broad diet and over 50 different prey species have been identified. It preys mainly on rodents, small birds (100 g) and invertebrates. It takes mostly small mammals such as mice and gerbils. Its prey generally weighs less than 30-40 g and it captures around 10-14 small rodents per night. Occasionally the black-footed cat also feeds on reptiles and larger prey such as bustards (for example the black bustard) and hares. When preying on these larger species it caches part of its prey for example in hollows for later consumption. The black-footed cat preys also on emerging alates of the harvester termite, catches larger winged insects such as grasshoppers and has been observed to feed on black bustard's and lark species’ eggs. It is also known to scavenge. One of the adaptations to arid conditions enables the black-footed cat to get all the moisture it needs from its food. In terms of interspecific competition, the black-footed cat captures on average smaller prey than the African wildcat does. 

Two black-footed cats hunting a mouse.
A black-footed cat eating a bird.
Black-footed cat with its prey.
Black-footed cat with a just killed rodent.

Main Threats

The main threats to black-footed cats are habitat degradation and indiscriminate pest control methods such as the use of poison. Farmers in South Africa and Namibia consider the similar looking African wildcat a predator of small livestock and set steel-jaw traps and poisoned bait to get rid of it. This also threatens the black-footed cat, which accidently gets killed in such indiscriminate trapping and hunting events. Carcass poisoning for jackal control could be a threat to it too as the black-footed cat readily scavenges. Moreover, interest for black-footed cats in the trophy hunting industry is raising indicated by permit applications and requests made to taxidermists.

The loss of key resources such as prey and den sites due to human impact, is thought to may be the most serious long-term threat to the species. Mainly the decline of springhare populations due to bushmeat hunting is threatening the black-footed cat. 

Agriculture and overgrazing by livestock is prevalent throughout the species' range resulting in habitat deterioration which can lead to reductions of the black-footed cat’s small vertebrate prey base. The black-footed cat gets also killed in collisions with vehicles and is subject to predation from snakes, jackals, caracals and owls as well as opportunistically being killed by domestic dogs. Increasing interspecific competitions and intraguild predation may are emerging threats to the species. Domestic cats can also threaten the black-footed cat through disease transmission.  

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The black-footed cat is included in Appendix I of the CITES and is protected across most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Botswana and South Africa.

The black-footed cat is one of the best studied small felids. Radio-collared animals have been observed over many years (since 1992) near Kimberley in South Africa so there is a lot known about its ecology and behaviour. A second study area has been established close to De Aar, 300 km to the south, since 2009. Since the black-footed cat is difficult to observe, there is still little information available about its distribution and conservation status.

Recommended conservation measures include more detailed research on its distribution, threats and status as well as further ecological studies in different habitats. There is an urgend need to create conservation plans for the black-footed cat for which more data on the species is needed.

The Black-footed cat Working Group aims to conserve the black-footed cat by conducting multidisciplinary research on the species by different means such as camera trapping, radio telemetry but also the collection and analysis of biological samples.