Sand Cat, Felis margarita
The sand cat is a small felid weighing 3 to 7 pounds (1.4 to 3.2 kg). The sand cat has adapted to life in harsh desert environments. It is pale yellow or gray overall, with dark bars on the legs and distal half of the tail. A thick layer of coarse black hair covers the soles of the feet, providing insulation from temperature extremes and allowing the cat to walk easily over the sand. The large ears are set low on the sides of the head, where they are better protected from wind-blown sand. The position of the ears also gives the cat a lower profile, useful for stalking prey in a habitat with little cover. The inner ear features enlarged tympanic passages and bullae, which are thought to improve the sand cat’s ability to hear distant prey in the desert’s dry air. The claws are dull, due to a lack of opportunities to sharpen them, and their impressions can often be seen in sand cats’ tracks.
Sand cats are the only true desert specialist among the felids. They inhabit both sandy and stony deserts, and have been found in areas with nearly no vegetation. In southern parts of their range, temperatures range from 30 to 135oF (-1 to 57oC). In the northern parts of their range, winter temperatures can drop to -15oF (-26 oC). The presence of prey is likely the key feature determining whether sand cats can survive at particular desert locations.
Sand cats are thought to have a wide distribution across northern Africa and southwest Asia, but are rare throughout most of their range. In Asia, they are native to the area east of the Caspian Sea (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and northeastern Iran), Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen). In Africa, the species has been confirmed in Egypt east of the Nile River (including the Sinai Peninsula), Algeria, Niger, Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. It is thought that sand cats might also be present in western Egypt and Libya, and possibly other North African countries, although they have not been confirmed in those locations.
Sand cats are opportunistic hunters, feeding on a wide variety of small prey. Small rodents such as gerbils, gerboas and spiny mice make up the majority of their diet. They are also skilled at capturing reptiles, including venomous snakes such as the horned viper and sand viper. On the Arabian Peninsula, sand skinks and Arabian toad-head lizards are common prey items. Sand cats also consume young hares, small birds, and insects. They often live far from water sources, needing only the moisture present in their prey.
What we know of the sand cat’s solitary life cycle comes from a small number of records. Gestation periods of 59 to 63 days have been reported. In the Sahara, births have been reported from January through April, in Turkmenistan during April, and in Pakistan from September to October. They are not seasonal breeders in captivity. Litters usually include two to three kittens. The kittens grow quickly, becoming independent at 6 to 8 months and sexually mature at 9 to 14 months. Individuals have lived into their twenties in zoos, with an average lifespan of approximately 15 years. Their lifespan in the wild is unknown.
Sand cats are solitary, nocturnal predators. They are adept at digging, a skill that allows them to reach their fossorial (burrowing) prey. They spend the daylight hours in the shelter of a burrow, either digging the burrow themselves or enlarging those dug by the sand fox or other species. A sand cat may choose a different burrow each day, but after selecting one, remains in that location until nightfall. Burrows are used interchangeably by different cats. On rare occasions that they are seen outside the burrow during the day, they are usually seen lying on their backs, a posture that is thought to dispel heat.
At nightfall, sand cats assume a lookout position at the burrow opening, observing for several minutes before leaving for the night. They take up the same position when they return at dawn. One study found the cats to travel an average of 3.5 miles (approximately 5.5 km) each night. Home ranges are thought to vary in size according to the availability of prey, and have been recorded up to 15.4 square miles (40 square km).
Threats to Survival:
Habitat degradation is the primary threat to sand cats. Desert ecosystems are easily changed by human activity. Livestock grazing and off-road driving can quickly deplete already-scarce vegetation, leading to the loss of small mammal populations which sand cats depend upon as prey. In some locations, additional threats come from domestic dogs and cats, which may compete with sand cats for prey in addition to transmitting diseases. Sand cats may also be trapped accidentally by oasis residents aiming to protect their chickens from foxes and jackals. In areas north of Lake Chad, nomads consider the sand cats themselves to be chicken thieves, but the cats are not persecuted due to religious respect for small cats as associates of the Prophet Mohammed.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists the Pakistan sand cat, F. m. scheffeli, as Endangered. IUCN lists the sand cat as Near Threatened, but notes that there are large gaps in our knowledge of the species’ population and distribution. Sand cats are experts at staying hidden due to their solitary, nocturnal lifestyle, their tendency to bury their scat in the sand, and their habit of freezing and closing their eyes when disturbed by human observers. Future research may demonstrate that the sand cat is less, or more, imperiled than scientists currently estimate.
All populations are protected by CITES under Appendix II regulations. The species is protected from hunting in several of its range countries (Algeria, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan and Tunisia), and occurs in protected areas in Algeria, Niger, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Sand cats are managed by programs in North America, Europe, and the United Arab Emirates. In North America, the Sand Cat Species Survival Plan (SSP) focuses on F. m. harrisoni, with a target population of 50 individuals. In order to increase the breeding potential and genetic viability of sand cats and other small felids, program coordinators are working toward the formation of Global Species Management Plans. A more global management perspective would allow the importation of young founder cats from zoos in other regions, an important step in achieving AZA’s sand cat population goal.
Sand Cat SSP Coordinator & Studbook Keeper
Autumn Nelson, San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Small African Cat SSPs Education Advisors:
Kelly Miller, Palm Beach Zoo
Alma Ruffin, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Zoo scientists have successfully produced sand cat kittens through in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer. These techniques produce offspring in pairs that cannot, or will not, breed naturally. Similarly, it enables the transport of frozen sperm and/or embryos between different zoos, or different countries, without having to transport the animals themselves.