CatSG

Sand cat

Felis margarita thinobia

IUCN Red List: Least Concern (Felis margarita)

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 stretching from the anterior edge of each eye backwards and across the cheeks. The coat of the sand cat is strikingly pallid; typical camouflage for a sand-dwelling species. Its back is pale sandy-isabelline, finely speckled with black over the shoulders and with silvery grey fur on the upper flanks. It has a poorly differentiated spinal band and its crown is pale sandy, with ill-defined striations. Some individuals have dark horizontal bars on the legs. The belly and throat are white. In the 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. In the Karakum Desert in central Asia for example, air temperatures can exceed 40°C in summer with the upper sand layer reaching a temperature of over 80°C. In winter air temperature can drop down to -25 °C in winter.

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 its 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 those in other small felids) to increase hearing abilities in areas with little vegetation cover. A highly developed sense of hearing is important for locating prey in arid environments, where they are 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 claw impressions 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

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 deserto

Uzbek

mushuk

Status and Distribution

The sand cat is classified as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List and as Endangered in the Regional Red List of the United Arab Emirates. Throughout its range there are still few records and its distribution seems to be quite patchy. Although that some local declines were detected, there is not sufficient evidence to assume a range wide decline of the species which would qualify it globally for a threatened category. The sand cat is often described as rare and occurring at low densities. Its status is not well known and its nocturnal, secretive behaviour may contribute to the lack of knowledge. There are no reliable population estimates or trends available. In low quality habitats such as areas with shifting sand dunes, sand cat densities are thought 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 a result 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 through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. Felis silvestris thinobia inhabits Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzekistan, Kasachstan, possibly Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.

In Syria, sand cats were recorded around the area of Palmyra. In Iraq, the sand cat was recorded in the West Al-Najaf desert area but it is rarely seen there. There are evidences from scattered locations across the Arabian Peninsula. The status and distribution of the sand cat there is not well known but the population is considered to be declining. In Saudi Arabia, there are repeated reports of sand cats from the south-west and from the south-east bordering Oman, United Arab Emirates and Iran. Sand cats have been recorded in the protected areas: Mahazat as Sayd, Saja/Um Ar-Rimth and Uruq Bani Ma'arid as well as in the western Empty Quarter. In the United Arab Emirates, the sand cat is rarely recorded. It has been found in Abu Dhabi Emirates and Dafar and Umm Al Zuma in the south-east and on the edge of the Rub Al Khali. In Oman, the sand cat has been recorded in the Empty Quarter, in Ramlat al Ghafa, Umm as Samim and south-west of Ibri as well as in the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in the central region, in the As Saleel Nature Reserve and the Wahiba Sands. There are no records from Yemen for more than 50 years, despite surveys for other species across the country. In Jordan, the sand cat is considered very rare. There are some records from Wadi Rum in the south and from the north-east, but extensive trapping failed to record the species in Wasa Arava. In Pakistan, sand cat presence has been recorded in the Chagai Desert plateau of the Balochistan province close to the border with Afghanistan and from the south-east and east, near the Iranian border, however these records are more than 40 years old and there are no recent records form the country. In Iran, sand cats are mainly recorded in the desert habitats in the centre, east and south-east of the country but there are also some records from the north. The sand cat is known from the Khorasan Province in the north-east, Kavir National Park in the north-centre and Fars Province in the south-west. It was also camera trapped in the Abbassabad Protected Area, east of Isfahan. The species was detected east of the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In Uzbekistan, a breeding population of sand cats has been recorded in the Kyzyl Kum desert in 2013/2014. During a survey in 2015 in the Kazakh Kysylkum no sand cats were detected. Also from the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan snad cat records are missing. The sand cat is possibly extinct in Israel, Pakistan and Yemen.

Gaps in the distribution of the sand cat exist and it is not known if those are due to a lack of survey or whether sand cats are absent from these areas.

The only density estimate of the species comes from Israel with 2.9 individuals per 100 km². The total sand cat population is conservatively estimated 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, yellow = possibly extinct; 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 Turkmenistan, the sand cat was described as most abundant amongst extensive stabilized sand dunes and heavier clay soil habitats. In the northern areas between the Aral and Caspian seas, the sand cat occurs only sparsely in the more claylike desert soils of the Ustyurt and Mangyshlak regions. In the Arabian Peninsula, sand cats have been recorded in sandy habitats but also gravel/rocky and even volcanic lava fields e.g. Harrat in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In the United Arab Emirates sand cat evidences were found in inter-dune gravel flats with scattered calcrete hills bordered by sparsely vegetated sand dunes and in sand dunes areas. In Syria sightings are mainly from sandy habitats dominated by dwarf perennial shrubs Calligonum comosum and Stipagrostis plumosa. In north-east Jordan they were reported to prefer sandy desert and depressions without Acacia. The sand cat has been recorded up to 2000 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. 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, the sanc cat 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. Burrows seem to be used interchangeably by different individuals. 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, home ranges of sand cats in the Saya/Umm Ar-Rimth reserve varied from 19.6-50.7 km². There is indication that seasonal ranges of male and female sand cats considerably overlap (intrasexual overlap). Scent marking and vocalizations are used by both sexes to maintain social organization.

Births have been reported in April in Turkmenistan and around September-October in Pakistan. 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. In Central Asia major prey species are gerbils (Gerbillus spp.), jerboas (Jaculus spp. and Allactaga tetradactyla) and hamsters (Mesocricetus spp.). Sand cats also take spiny mice (Acomys spp.) and jirds (Meriones spp.). Beside rodents, sand cats prey on birds such as sand grouse (Pterocles sp.), larks (e.g. Ammomanes deserti, Alaemon alaudipes) and partridges, young of Cape hares (Lepus capensis) and different reptiles such as desert monitor (Varanus griseus), fringe-toed lizards (Acanthodactylus spp.), short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus spp.), spiny tailed lizard (Uromastyx aegyptia) and horned vipers (Cerastes sp.). Sand cats also prey on insects and may take locusts when they swarm. In Arabia, the sand skink (Scincus scinicus) and Arabian toad-headed lizards (Phrynocephalus arabicus) are thought to be important prey species.

Nomads report them to be snake hunters - preying on two viper species by hitting them hard on the head and then biting the back of the neck to kill them. 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 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. In the Arabian Peninsula sand cat habitat continues to decline. 

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.

The transmission of disease from domestic cats or the competition with them for prey is another threat. Congenital toxoplasmosis was found to be a cause of mortality in captive animals in two Middle Eastern breeding centres.

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. They get caught in traps set for other carnivores or poisoned and are occasionally shot in southeast Arabia. 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. 

Human disturbance to which sand cats seem to be very sensitive can also be a problem. 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 Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. 

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.