CatSG

Sand cat

Felis margarita

IUCN Red List: Least Concern

Weight: 1,35-3,4 kg
Body length: 39-52 cm
Tail length: 22-31 cm
Longevity: up to 17 years in captivity
Litter size: 2-8 cubs, average 3

Description

The sand cat (Felis margarita) is part of the genus Felis. Previously four subspecies of the sand cat were described:

  • F. m. harrisoni from the Arabian Peninsula
  • F. m. scheffeli from the Nushki Desert of Pakistan
  • F. m. thinobia from the sand deserts of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and probably northern Iran and north-eastern Afghanistan and
  • F. m. margarita from Africa.

Based on the most recent studies and evidences, only two subspecies are proposed:

  • Felis margarita margarita in North Africa and
  • Felis margarita thinobia in South-West Asia and the Arabian Peninsula

However, phylogeographical studies are needed to confirm this classification.

After the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) the sand cat is the second smallest member of the genus Felis. It has large yellow amber, greenish to yellow-bluish eyes. The hair on its cheeks is white. The face is marked with a dark reddish-fulvous stripe form the anterior edge of each eye backwards, across the cheeks. The coat of the sand cat is strikingly pallid; typical camouflage for a sand-dwelling species back is pale sandy-isabelline, finely speckled with black over the shoulders and with silvery grey on the upper flanks. It has a poorly differentiated spinal band and its crown is pale sandy marked with ill-defined striations. Some individuals have dark horizontal bars on the legs. The belly and throat are white. In northern regions of its distribution range, the sand cat's winter coat can be very dense and may be up to 6 cm long with soft woolly underfur, making the cat appear much larger. This thick coat and the dense dark fur growing between the toes and on the foot soles, completely covering the pads, are adaptations to the extreme climate of desert environments with very hot and very cold temperatures. During the summer the daytime air temperature can reach up to 58 °C in the shade and during the night temperatures can drop to -0.5 °C.

The tail of the sand cat is longish with 2-8 black rings and a black tip. It has very large black-tipped ears, set widely apart and low on the sides of the broad and flattened head. The inside of the ear is covered with thick white hair which probably has a protective function against sandstorms. The tympanic meati (passages from the external ears to the ear drums) and bullae (rounded bony capsules surrounding the middle and internal ears) are greatly enlarged (compared to the ones of other small felids) to increase hearing abilities in areas with little vegetation cover. A highly developed sense of hearing abilities is important for locating prey in arid environments where it is not only sparsely distributed but also found in underground burrows. The front paw of the sand cat has five digits whereas the hind paw has only four. The claws of the sand cat are not very sharp, except for the dew-claw on the thumb higher up on the wrist, due to the lack of opportunity to sharpen them in the desert and the sand cat's digging habits. The sand cat does not retract its claws completely when walking and impressions of them are often visible in its tracks. Males are on average larger and heavier than females.

 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Arabic

qit el remel, qit ramli, biss ramli, al tiffa, al qitarriml

Central Sahara (Tamahaq)

qareschtar, aghsheter

English

sand dune cat, desert cat

French

chat des sables, chat du desert, chat de Marguerite

German

Sandkatze, Wüstenkatze

Iran (Farsi)

gorbeh sheni

Israel

hattul holot

Kazakh

sevin

Russian

peshaya koshka, barchannaya koshka

Spanish

gato de las arenas, gato del Sahara, gato del desierto

Uzbek

mushuk

Status and Distribution

The sand cat is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List. Although that some local declines were detected, still few records across its range exist and that its distribution seems to be quite patchy, there is not sufficient evidence to assume a range wide decline of the species which would qualify it for a threatened category. The sand cat is often described as rare and occurring at low densities. However, its status is not well known and its nocturnal and secretive behaviour may influence this perception. In habitat with low quality such as areas with shifting sand dunes, densities of sand cats are supposed to be very low. Sand cat numbers probably fluctuate with the peaks and dips in prey densities caused by environmental conditions. Whether its rarity is caused by threats or the product of its low natural density is unknown. Due to the still limited knowledge about its ecology, distribution and population size, it is difficult to assess the status of the sand cat.

The sand cat is distributed throughout the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. It occurs in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and western Sahara.

In northern Africa the sand cat occurs marginally in the western Sahara (administrated by Morocco) and was recorded in Algeria in and around Ahaggar Cultural park, the Grand Occidental, the Béni Abbès region and the Tindouf area. There are records from the Sinai peninsula to the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt. From Egypt west of the Nile River, in Libya and in Tunisia there are no confirmed records and no specimens have been collected. The sand cat was recently recorded in Niger and Chad and sighted in Mali. In southern Niger, the species was pictured during camera trapping surveys in the Termit & Tin-Toumma National Nature Reserve. In Mauritania, it was historically thought to occur in the Adrar mountains and Majabat al-Koubra. Its presence in Sudan is uncertain.

No ecological explanation exists for the gaps in the sand cat distribution. It is not known if the gaps in its distribution range are the result of missing species records or reflect species absence. 

The only density estimate of the species comes from Israel with 2.9 individuals per 100 km². The total sand cat population is conservatively estiamted at 27,264 mature individuals. 

Global distribution area of the sand cat (red = extant, orange = possibly extant, dark yellow = possibly extinct; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).
Distribution area of the sand cat in Africa (red = extant, orange = possibly extant; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).

Habitat

The sand cat is the only felid found primarily in true deserts. It prefers areas of sparse vegetation mixed with sandy and rocky areas, which supports rodent and small bird prey. In Algeria sand cats have been reported from areas bordering great dune expansions, large sandy wadis and in areas with alternating rocky and wide sandy valleys. In Morocco evidences of sand cat were found in sandy areas with the perennial gras Panicum turgidum low bushes and Acacia Acacia trotillis ssp. and Raddiana trees. The sand cat has been recorded up to 2,000 m. 

Habitat of the Sand cat.
Habitat of the Sand cat.
Fleeing sand cat.
Sand cat hiding, Marocco.

Ecology and Behaviour

Many aspects of the behaviour and ecology of the sand cat are still poorly known. The sand cat is a solitary species. Males and females come generally only together for mating. The sand cat is mainly nocturnal. However, some diurnal activity in Arabia was recorded, especially in winter when conditions were cooler. The sand cat rests in burrows, usually found at the base of bushes, during the day to seek protection from high or low air temperatures and to minimize the loss of moisture. Burrows can be found in open areas or also beneath rocks or vegetation. Such dens can have multiple entrances and may be used by different individuals at different times. In the Moroccan Sahara, sand cats seem not to use burrows but to hide between rocks or vegetation during the day in winter. The sand cat is a good digger, which is necessary to make its own burrows and for hunting small prey. However, it also inhabits abandoned burrows of desert foxes (Vulpes rueppellii, Vulpes zerda) or those of rodents and desert hedgehogs which are enlarged by the sand cats, beneath bushes and shrubs.

It is not a good climber or jumper. With its exceptionally keen sense of hearing it can detect prey under the sand and dig it rapidly out. The sand cat is capable of satisfying its moisture requirements from its prey, allowing it to live far from water sources but if water is available, it readily drinks. When the sand cat leaves the den at night it usually first observes its surroundings before moving away. This behaviour is repeated when it returns to the burrow. If threatened, the sand cat crouches beside rocks or tussocks, or even on bare ground, remaining immobile and is therefore very difficult to see. It also has the tendency to close its eyes against spotting lights at night.

The home ranges of sand cats are quite large. A study done in Israel indicated that males maintain overlapping territories of about 16 km² and travelled an average nightly distance of 5.4 km. In Saudi Arabia, annual home ranges of 19.6-50.7 km² were estimated. In Morocco, home ranges were estimated at 35.3 km², 21.8 km² and 13.4 km² for two males and one female, respectively. There seems to be considerable overlap between seasonal ranges of males and females. Scent marking and vocalizations are used by both sexes to maintain social organisation.

Births have been reported from January-April in the Sahara. In captivity, births did not occur seasonally. Estrus lasts 3 days, the estrus cycle for 11-12 days and the gestation period for 59-67 days. Sexual maturity is attained at 9 to 14 months. Although the average is 3 kittens, litter size varies from 2-8. Age at independence is not known but young sand cats grow rapidly and it is assumed that they become independent relatively early around 6-8 months. 

Young sand cat kitten.
Sand cat stalking a prey.
A sand cat mother nursing its kittens.
Sand cat sneaking away.

Prey

The sand cat feeds mainly on small sand dwelling rodents such as spiny mice (Acomys spp.), jirds (Meriones spp.) gerbils (Gerbillus spp.), jerboas (Jaculus spp. and Allactaga tetradactyla) and hamsters but also often takes sand grouse (Pterocles sp.), larks (e.g. Ammomanes deserti, Alaemon alaudipes) and partridges. It also takes the young of Cape hares (Lepus capensis) and preys on different reptiles such as desert monitor (Varanus griseus), fringe-toed lizards (Acanthodactylus spp.), sandfish (Scincus scincus), short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus spp.), horned and sand vipers of the genus Cerastes, and insects.

Nomads know them as snake hunters – preying on two viper species by hitting them hard on the head and then biting on the back of the neck for the kill. When there is surplus meat from larger prey, the sand cat caches it under an insulating layer of sand for later consumption. 

Main Threats

The major threat to the sand cat is habitat loss and degradation which may lead to population fragmentation. Arid ecosystems are in some parts rapidly degraded due to road and settlements expansion, recreational human activities such as off-road driving, land conversion for agricultural purposes and due to overgrazing by livestock, especially by camels and goats, which also can reduce the prey base. Habitat is also destructed through political strife and civil war.

The micro-distribution of the small mammals which make up an important part of the sand cat’s diet is often found close around vegetation and does not extend into bare sand ranges. This has the potential to limit the distribution and density of sand cats in areas devoid of vegetation or during drought years leading to a loss of vegetation. Sand cat populations may fluctuate, decreasing and increasing in response to environmental changes that affect prey availability.

An additional threat is the introduction of feral and domestic cats. They directly compete with the sand cat for prey and can transmitt diseases. Another problem is the predation by snakes, large owls, jackals, foxes, wolves and domestic hunting and herding dogs, which can be abundant. Sand cats get also killed by people or get caught in traps and snares laid out for other species. Sand cats also sometimes get stuck in fences where they die when not released on time. Locally, the species may is also threatened by the pet trade.

Another problem is human disturbance to which sand cats seem to be very sensitive. A constraint for its conservation is missing awareness for the species and the lack of knowledge about its status and biology which can hinder effective conservation measures. 

 

 

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The Sand cat is included in Appendix II of CITES. Only little information is available about its inclusion into national legislation. Hunting of sand cats is prohibited in Algeria, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Niger, Tunesia and United Arab Emirates. No legal protection is in place in Egypt, Mali and Morocco.

In some areas the sand cat is treated with respect by nomads due to its role in religious stories and is thus not persecuted.

There is an urgent need for further investigation of the sand cat’s ecology, population size and trends, status, threats and distribution to can take effective conservation measurements.