Pallas’ cat, Otocolobus manul
Peter Pallas, the first to describe the Pallas’ cat, or manul, erroneously suggested that this was the ancestor of the long-haired Persian breeds of domestic cats because of its long hair, stocky build and flattened face. The hair on its belly and tail is nearly twice as long as on the top and sides. Like the snow leopard, this presumably helps keep the animal warm when it hunts on snow, cold rock or frozen ground. The background color of its fur varies from gray in the north of its range to fox-red in some parts of the south, although grayish animals are also found in the south. The body is compact, with short legs marked with indistinct black bands and a thick short, black-tipped tail. Pallas’ cats weigh between 4.5 and 10 lb (2 to 4.5 kg). The ears are small, rounded and set low on the sides of the head, an adaptation to hunting in open country where there is little cover.
There are three named subspecies, the nominate race, O. m. manul, from Mongolia, western China and Russia being the smallest and rarest. The race from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and northern Iran, O. m. ferugineus, is reddish in color. The race from northern Pakistan, northern India, Tibet, Khazakstan, Kirgizstan, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan and northern Nepal is referred to as O. m. nigripectus.
Pallas’ cats are found in stony, alpine desert and grassland habitats and are generally absent from lowland sandy desert basins except along river courses. Exposed rock outcrops or expanses of talus are a strong characteristic of Pallas’ cat habitat, in part because of the abundance of pikas in these locations. They den in small caves and rock crevices, hence their preference for talus slopes, and also take refuge in the burrows of marmots, foxes and badgers.
Pallas’ cats are adapted to cold, arid environments and have a wide distribution through Central Asia but are relatively specialized in their habitat requirements. The small southern populations in Pakistan are isolated from the main population and occur in montane juniper steppe. The northern range ends where the steppes meet the coniferous taiga forest. They are found at altitudes up to 4,800 meters but are strongly associated with flat, rolling steppe and south-facing slopes where steep snow does not accumulate. They have also been collected from the fringes of cultivated areas in China’s Qinghai Province.
Unique among felids, Pallas’ cats are an obligate feeder of pikas, a small mammal in the rabbit family. In the Lake Baikal region of Russia, pikas have been found to make up 89 % of their diet. In other regions where pikas aren’t abundant, Pallas’ cats consume more rodents.
Observations of Pallas’ cats in the wild suggest that they are usually solitary animals. Pallas’ cats are seasonal breeders, with most litters being born in April-May. Their breeding cycle is so strongly linked to photoperiod that if their natural cycle is interrupted, they will not breed until the following year. Among felids, Pallas’ cats have unusually large litters (6 to 8 young) that are born after a 74 to 75 day gestation. Females are sexually mature at one year, and longevity in captivity is at least 11.5 years.
Pallas’ cats are generally crepuscular, being most frequently encountered at dusk or in early morning. While not an adept runner, the Pallas’ cat is an expert ambush predator. Once it spots a prey animal, the cat creeps up slowly, masking its approach by hiding behind whatever vegetative cover is available. Its pale, grey coat also affords it cover, blending in with the surrounding rocks. A flat forehead and low ears allow the cat to peek over bushes and rocks without exposing much of itself to the unwary prey. At just the right moment, the cat pounces.
Threats to Survival:
Although there has been little recent international trade, Pallas’ cats have historically been hunted in large numbers for their fur. Pallas’ cats have disappeared from much of the Caspian region and from the easternmost parts of its range in China due to over-hunting.
Poisoning to control pika populations has taken place on a large scale in parts of the Russian Federation where they are considered to be vectors for plague, and in parts of China where they are considered competitors of domestic livestock for grass. As a result, Pallas’ cats face shortages of prey in some areas as well as suffering threats from secondary poisoning.
IUCN considers the Pallas’ cat to be Near Threatened. Regulated by CITES as an Appendix II species, Pallas’ cats are protected by national legislation over most of their range.
An International Studbook was set up in 1997 under the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums umbrella, and zoos maintain now a largely self-sustained population managed under regional conservation breeding programs by AZA and EAZA. AZA manages a studbook to maximize genetic variation within the captive population of Pallas’ cats in North America.
Importation of wild Pallas’ cats from Russia in the mid-1990s as a founder population for North American zoos was followed by frustration in getting these cats to breed and their offspring to survive. Research in zoos has established that Pallas’ cats have a pronounced reproductive seasonality controlled by light exposure and that newborns are extremely susceptible to infection with a parasite called Toxoplasma. Improved reproductive and disease management based on these findings has enabled the captive population to grow.
In conjunction with field research described below, zoo scientists have conducted reproductive evaluations of wild male Pallas’ cats to learn more about their natural reproductive biology and to freeze valuable semen for use with genetic management. In an ongoing study, scientists are using this frozen semen for in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer procedures with Pallas’ cats in U.S. zoos to produce new founders for the captive population (without removing additional cats from the wild).
Pallas’ Cat SSP Coordinator:
Ashleigh Lutz-Nelson, San Francisco Zoo
Pallas’ Cat Studbook Keeper:
Scott Kayser, Birmingham Zoo
Zoos support field studies in Mongolia to measure range sizes of wild Pallas’ cats by radio telemetry, which are important with a view of introducing effective conservation measures.
Pallas’ Cat Study and Conservation Program, www.savemanul.org/eng
Pallas’ Cat Working Group, www.wild-cat.org/manul/pallas-cat/index.htm?pcwg-members.htm