Sand Cat

Felis margarita

Photo - ZooNet 1995

Body Length(mm) - 450-570

Weight (kg) - 1-3 (average)

Litter Size - 2-3 (average)

Life Span - 13 years

Status - Least Concern

F.m. margarita - North Africa

F.m.harrisoni - Arabia

F.m.thinobia - Turkmenistan

F.m.scheffeli - Pakistan

The Sand cat is one of the smallest of all the wild cat species. Its body which is about the size of a small domestic cat - a male measures up to 57cm and weighs only 3kg. The coat varies in colour from grey to sandy yellow and is marked irregularly with indistinct stripy markings - the legs are often banded with horizontal dark stripes. Characteristic dark reddish/drown markings appear on the cheeks and to the side of the eyes as well as covering the rear of the ears - the chin and throat of the sand cat are white.

As its name implies the sand cat is commonly found in sandy desert areas in the arid countries of Northern Africa, Arabia and parts of Central Asia and Pakistan - sand cats indigenous to each of these areas are catorgorised as sub species, respectively, Felis margarita margarita (North Africa), Felis margarita harrisoni (Arabian Peninsula), Felis margarita thinobia (west of the Caspian Sea) and Felis margarita scheffeli (Pakistan). Due to its fragmented distribution across the Saharan part of its range some experts sub-catogarise the North African species of the sand cat into further distinct sub-species - Felis margarita airensis (Niger) and Felis margarita meinertzhageni (Sahara) - however due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate population figures and accurate scientific data of cats in open desert areas, exact classification is uncertain.

The sand cat’s body is well adapted to cope with the extremes of its environment - its thick fur is of medium length and acts as insulation against the extreme cold of the desert nights and its feet and pads are covered with long hair which protect them from the heat of the desert surface and give it extra support needed in moving across the soft, shifting sands.

The distinctive triangular ears of the sand cat, which are large in proportion to the rest of the cats head are particularly sensitive. Sound does not travel well across vast expanses of sandy terrain and it is thought that an enlarged auditory bulla (part of the inner ear) and over sized pinnae (ear flaps) aid the cat in hearing the movements of its common prey both above and below ground. Interestingly, the Serval, which also has extra large pinnae is similarly thought to be able to detect the ultra-sonic sounds of its prey as it moves just beneath surface. The sand cats acute hearing may also play a part in communication between male and female prior to mating and in establishing territoriality - the male has a particularly loud barking call which may well serve to advertise the males position across large expanses of desert terrain.

The sand cat is solitary and nocturnal in its hunting. During the extreme heat of the day the cat will often sleep under rough scrub vegetation or more commonly in a shallow burrow dug into the sand or in a hollow in between rocks or sandy boulders. At sunset the cat will become active, moving away from its den in search of prey at the onset of darkness. The extent of the sand cats prey species is uncertain, however its is known to include small rodents such as gerbil and jerboas, insects, reptiles, including venomous desert snakes and birds. Caching of larger prey has been observed - the sand cat using loose sand to cover its kill. It is probable that as well as taking prey on the surface, sand cats may also use there strong fore limbs to dig into the burrows of certain species of diurnal gerbil.

Interestingly, and again by way of adapting to its environment the sand cat can live without drinking water, instead obtaining all the fluid it requires from its prey - in this it is comparable to Black-footed Cat found in similar arid locations in parts of South Africa.

In the wild it has been observed that the young sand cat develops rapidly and become independent at a relatively early age. The litter size can range between 1-8 kittens (normally 4-5) and are born after a gestation period of approximately 62 days. The kittens have a daily weight gain of approximately 12g per day and reaches maturity at about 14 months of age.

Due to the remoteness of much of the sand cats habitat there are conflicting reports as to the exact population status of the animal. It is quite possible that there are many more sand cats than current estimates show and recently the three sub-species found in parts of its range excluding Pakistan have been re-classified as Least Concern in the Red List of Endangered Species. scheffeli, the Pakistan sand cat is now listed as Near Threatened.

1997 Andrew Garman