- HB Length: 39-52 cm (15-20″)
- Tail Length: 23-31 cm (9-12″)
- Height: 24-30 cm (10-12″)
- Weight: 1.3-3.4 kg (3-7.5 lbs)
Sand Cats Felis margarita are true desert dwellers, with numerous adaptations to an arid life and colouring that blends in with their environment. They are the only felid to occur exclusively in desert habitat.
The coat is soft and dense, mostly pale sandy brown to light grey, slightly darker on the back and whitish on the belly. A reddish streak runs across each cheek from the outer corner of the eyes; the lower half of the face and chest is whitish to pale yellow. The tawny reddish ears are black tipped, as is the tail, which also has a few narrow black rings near the tip. The broad head has large eyes placed greatly forward, and low set, large, tapered ears which provide keen hearing for habitat where prey is scarce.
There are pale cross stripes running down the flanks, almost invisible until the legs are stretched out, and indistinct bars on the limbs. Another desert adaptation is the long, dense, hairs covering the soles of the feet, providing insulation from the hot sands and helping them move across shifting surfaces. They have evolved a thick coat which insulates them from the alternating intense heat and cold of a desert environment.
Sand cats occur across the Sahara Desert, from Morocco in the west to as far as Egypt and the Sudan in the east. Many areas that appear suitable have no records of their presence, but this may be a result of limited observations. They also occur in the Middle East and there is thought to be a very small population in Central Asia.
As true desert specialists, they occupy true desert that receives less than 20 mm of rainfall a year. They inhabit a variety of sandy and stony desert habitats with some cover, and arid shrub-covered steppes.
The first radio telemetry study on these little cats (1993) was in Israel, where biologists discovered they were extremely difficult to track. The fur on the soles of their feet that prevents them from sinking in soft sand also makes their tracks almost invisible. When a light is trained on them, they crouch low, closing their eyes so that no reflection is visible. This behaviour, along with their excellent protective colouring, compounds the problem.
The cats also buried all their feces, making it impossible to gather data about their diet. Home range size was variable between regions due to prey availability and competition from foxes and wildcats. The territories of the males were found to overlap, with the range of one male being 16 km2.
A 2006 study in Saudi Arabia found ranges were up to 40 km2. They trapped Sand Cats in both a nature reserve and an area of degraded habitat. In the protected area, researchers found five times more Ruppell’s Fox which are active at dawn and dusk. The foxes may have reached the bait in the traps before the nocturnal Sand Cats got to it. The rodent-eating foxes may also limit Sand Cat density in the reserve.
This close relative of the European Wildcat Felis silvestris shows a definite preference for extremely arid terrain. Sand Cats are prolific diggers. Digging is necessary to construct and improve burrows, and dig rodents out of the sand. Their claws do not fully retract and are not very sharp, as there is little opportunity to sharpen them in the desert and they are likely blunted by digging.
When crossing open spaces they keep low, skulking on bent legs. The low set ears enable stalking among rocks with a minimum of exposure. Because the hot dry air of the desert absorbs sound, large ears are required to pick up the faint squeaks of their prey. Their prey provides most of their moisture requirements, as they inhabit generally waterless regions. They will drink water if it is available but can survive on the moisture received from their prey. Enemies include venomous snakes, jackals and large owls.
In the Sahara they are known as ‘the cat that digs holes.’ Among Saharan nomads, Sand Cats have a reputation for being snake hunters, particularly of horned and sand vipers, which they stun with rapid blows to the head before dispatching with a neck bite. They also cover large kills with sand and return later to feed.
Primarily a nocturnal animal, they spend the hot daylight hours in a shallow burrow dug into a dune or beneath a shrub. They use and enlarge burrows of other species, as well as digging their own. They have occasionally been observed above ground in daylight near their burrows, lying on their backs in a posture to shed internal heat. Dens are used by different individuals, but not at the same time. At nightfall, they take up a lookout position at their den opening, and survey the surrounding area for about 15 minutes before leaving. They are active throughout the night, hunting and travelling 5-10 km. Before retiring below ground at dawn, the same lookout position is adopted at the mouth of the burrow.
Sand Cats are solitary animals with a very low population, and make use of a loud mating call, much like the barking of a small dog. The loud barking, combined with excellent hearing, enables these cats to find each other over great distances. Other vocalizations include mewling, growling, spitting, hissing, screaming and purring much as in domestic cats. Grooming and defence behaviour is also similar to domestic felines.
Breeding in the wild is seasonal with births born January-April. After a 60 – 67 day gestation, one to eight – usually 3-4 – kittens are born annually in a burrow or among rocks. Weight at birth is 50 – 60 grams. At two weeks their eyes open, they first venture outside at three to four weeks, and eat their first solid food at five weeks. They become independent at three to four months, and sexual maturity is reached at about 9 – 14 months. They have lived to 14 years of age in captivity.
As with most of the small felids, their numbers in the wild are unknown. They may be naturally rare but their habitat is so remote that is somewhat insulated from human activities, at least in Africa. Threats include expansion of cultivation at the desert edges, and increased interaction with domestic dogs. Feral cats also increase competition for prey, and may cause disease transmission. They are also caught in traps set around human settlements for jackals and foxes.
They are collected for the illegal pet trade in the Middle East, and wild specimens sunning themselves are shot for ‘sport’. Fortunately, Sand Cats are mainly nocturnal and sleep during the hours when people are active.
In Algeria, they are not considered a threat to poultry, or trapped to sell as pets. Toubou nomads living northwest of Lake Chad consider Sand Cats frequent chicken thieves which readily enter their camp in the evenings. They do not generally retaliate, due to traditional religious respect for these small cats as tradition holds that they were the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter.
Their small mammal prey base depends on adequate vegetation and may experience large fluctuations due to drought or declines due to desertification.
One subspecies, the Pakistan Sand Cat, F. m. scheffeli, is listed as endangered in the wild, and none are held in captivity. Overall, Sand Cats are listed as Near Threatened (2008).
Photo © Iranian Cheetah Society
Range Map IUCN Red List (2008)