Mesocarnivores occupy most habitats of the world, even scorching deserts where all life seems to be vacant. With extreme temperature fluctuations and sparse vegetation, it is surprising any animals can survive desert conditions, yet enough primary consumers exist to support several predators. The sand cat is one of those predatory desert specialists who cling to life within one of the harshest habitats on the planet. Being the only cat species to inhabit deserts, this small feline has evolved adaptations for sand travel and water conservation that allow it to thrive in desert climates, however, they now face the threat of losing their habitat due to human encroachment.
Resembling a house cat, the body of a sand cat measures 15-20 inches, plus the long tail adds 10-12 inches of length. Their relatively short legs make them stand only 9.5-12 inches in height, which is about the same as most domestic cats. However, sand cats are lighter than their domestic cousins, only weighing between 3-7.5 pounds. The ears are relatively larger and located on the side of the skull more than other felines. This ear placement gives them a flat-headed appearance but provides increased underground acoustic perception.
Although variations in color patterns are common, light brown and tan are the predominant base colors, with the underside being a paler shade to white. Dark brown horizontal banding typically exists on the legs and a distinct reddish line extends from the eye diagonally downward across the cheek. Their tails have two or three brown or black bands near the tip. This coloration evolved to provide excellent camouflage among the sands and rocks of their desert habitat. Since sand cats must stalk their prey in open terrain with few objects to hide their advances, such cryptic coloration significantly increases their chances of hunting success.
The sand cat only lives within the deserts of three geographic regions: The Sahara Desert of Northern Africa, desolate regions of Central Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. Due to the meager density of their populations in combination with their nocturnal habits, sand cat range and population numbers are not well understood. The fragmented range of sand cats once led biologists to believe multiple subspecies of the cat existed, however, modern genetic research concludes two distinct subspecies exist. Felis margarita margarita is known as the Saharan sand cat, occupying a large portion of the Sahara Desert. While the Arabian sand cat (Felis margarita thinobia) is spread throughout Turkestan, Pakistan, Iran, and most of the Arabian Peninsula.
Fitting to its name, sand cats survive best in loose, sandy substrates with scant vegetation. As with almost every desert species, they typically do not inhabit rolling sand dune areas. Instead, low valleys with rocky outcrops are preferred, where daytime temperatures can exceed 124 degrees, then drop to 30 degrees Fahrenheit overnight! Since these temperature-tolerant felines rely upon digging for foraging food and seeking shelter, compact or rocky soils are avoided. Although not needing abundant vegetation, enough to provide a food source for their rodent prey must exist.
As with most felines, sand cats have primarily solitary lives, only joining together to breed once or twice a year. Although usually quiet, females in estrus will announce their receptiveness with frequent, loud, rasping calls that sound like domestic cat communication. Plus, a unique barking vocalization, like the bark of a small dog, is made when attracting mates. She will also scent mark and leave scratch marks in prominent locations to attract interested males. After copulation, gestation lasts approximately two months, then usually two or three spotted kittens are born, although eight are possible for exceptionally healthy mothers.
Sand cat kittens mature rapidly, typically achieving nearly all of their adult weight within the first five months of life. By one year old, they are ready to be independent and sexually active. A high kitten mortality rate limits the expansion of the population and contributes to the tenuous status of the species. In captivity, sand cats have lived up to 13 years old, but so far, no documentation of their wild lifespan exists.
Due to the scarcity of food sources located in deserts, sand cats must be opportunistic when hunting. They stealthily slink along the sand surface using fur-covered paws that dissipate the sound of their steps. This excessive paw fur also protects their pads from the blistering hot sand during the day. As they search for prey, sand cats listen for subterranean activity with their acute hearing, which is believed to be up to eight decibels more sensitive than domestic cats. When underground prey is heard, sand cats rapidly dig through the sand to excavate the quarry.
Most of their diet is comprised of various rodents and reptiles, with birds and hares also routinely caught. Additionally, sand cats specialize in hunting down and killing snakes, most of which are poisonous, aggressive Cerastes vipers. Few other predators dare take on large desert snakes, yet sand cats have the courage and skills to conquer such precarious prey. They also seek out and feast upon large spiders when available and have been known to eat locusts and other insects. Like other cat species, any leftover food is buried for future ingestion.
Amazingly, sand cats can survive without drinking water for several weeks at a time! Instead, all required moisture is derived from the consumption of their prey. Dense, long fur and nocturnal activity patterns also assist with conserving water while living in Earth’s driest climates. When away from their burrows, sand cats must be on the lookout for larger predators, such as foxes, jackals, and caracals, all of which are known to hunt them. Unfortunately, domestic dogs are yet another threat to sand cat populations.
Like most other desert dwellers, sand cats are nocturnal. During the day, they escape the searing heat by inhabiting underground burrows that are up to five feet deep. The cats excavate these subterranean respites themselves or invade one previously dug by other burrowing species, such as foxes or porcupines. Several dens may exist within their home range. As night falls, sand cats exit their solitary den and habitually sit at the entrance of the burrow for at least fifteen minutes or more. Biologists believe this behavior allows the cats to evaluate the nearby terrain for predators or prey before venturing away from safety.
Once on the prowl, sand cats traverse vast areas of desert in search of their scarce prey. Field studies show they can walk up to five miles a night and may hold home ranges as large as thirteen square miles to gather sufficient prey for survival. When traveling in open spaces, sand cats crouch low to the ground, which provides an advantage for sneaking up on targets as well as listening for underground prey sounds. Despite this seemingly awkward stride, they can accelerate instantly to a top speed of 25 mph, which is blazing fast when in soft sand.
INTERACTIONS WITH HUMANS
Since sand cats are one of the most reclusive and least populated felines in the world, most humans never encounter them in the wild. Even when researchers seek them out using flashlights at night, these crafty kitties will remain completely still and close their eyes to eliminate their eyeshine. These actions make them near invisible as their camouflaged bodies blend exceedingly well into the desert scenery. To further complicate field observations, the excessive fur on their paws obscures their paw prints in the sand, making them near impossible to track. The combination of these factors has created difficulty in accurately assessing sand cat populations and critical habitat designations.
Even though humans rarely encounter sand cats, our actions are still harming their existence. As residential and commercial development occurs along the periphery of deserts, the available habitat becomes squeezed. Then, cattle can decimate the food source of their prey as agriculture continuously expands into desert regions. Since vegetation is limited within these arid landscapes, ranching can quickly eliminate all available prey from the area. Additionally, sand cats are often unintentionally caught in traps and snares or consume poison set for larger, depredating carnivores. Finally, disease transmission from domestic cats and dogs has caused significant declines in some regions.
The sand cat has adapted for survival in some of the most extreme environmental conditions on the planet yet now face constant new threats from human encroachment into their specialized habitat. Even though they can survive daily extreme temperature fluctuations and weeks without water, they are unable to endure the negative alterations human agriculture and development create throughout their range. Additional field studies are needed to accurately determine sand cat population size and critical habitat for survival. Without immediate action to further understand this amazing, cute mesocarnivore, we risk imperiling the only feline species occupying our planet’s inhospitable deserts.
For further reading:
Smithsonian’s Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute: Sand Cat
IUNC Red List: Sand Cat
Treehugger: “8 Things You Didn’t Know About The Sand Cat”