- HB Length: 46-65 cm (18-25.5″)
- Tail Length: 20-31 cm (8-12″)
- Height: 30-35 cm (12-14″)
- Weight: 2.5-4.5 kg (5.5 – 10 lbs_
Well-furred cats from the cold Asian steppes, Pallas’s Cats Otocolobus manul are also called Manul, Steppe Cat or Rock Wildcat.
These small cats have a stocky body with thick, soft fur and an abundant dark, woolly underfur which is double the length of that on the rest of the body. The colour varies from a light grey to a yellowish buff and russet, with the white tips of the hair producing a frosted appearance. There are some faint stripes along the sides of the body (more visible on the summer coat), and the fur on the underside is darker and longer than that above. Their head is round and broad with scattered black spots on the forehead, and two distinct parallel black bars on each cheek. The large, owl-like eyes are yellow, and the pupils contract into small circles instead of the usual vertical slits. The ears are short, rounded, and set low on the sides of the head. They are buff on the backs. The legs are short and stout, and the tail is thickly furred with a broad terminal black band, and five to six narrow rings along it.
Manul occur in Central Asia, from the Caspian Sea through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India to central China, Mongolia and southern Russia. Populations in the southwest portion of their range – the Caspian Sea region, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are diminishing, isolated and scarce. They are sparse in the Tibetan plateau where an elevation record of 5,050 m was recorded in 2007. Mongolia and Russia now make up the majority of their range.
Their habitat is characterized by an extreme continental climate with little rainfall, low humidity and a wide range of temperatures. They have been recorded up to 4,800 m in cold, arid habitats of the dry grassland steppes interspersed with stone outcrops, and in stony desert. These little predators prefer valleys and rocky areas where they have some cover, and avoid completely open habitats. They avoid areas of snow cover that exceed 10 cm, and the continuous snow cover of 15-20 cm marks the ecological limit of the species.
Home range sizes are very large for such a small felid. Both sexes maintain home ranges with those of the males overlapping those of several females. In Mongolia, female territories ranged from 7.4-125 km2, (average 23 km2), while male ranges were 21-207 km2 (average 98 km2). The few density estimates done on these cats revealed 4-8 individuals per 100 km2.
Pallas’ Cats look much heavier than they really are due to their stocky build and thick coat. They are well adapted to their habitat. The thick fur coat insulates them against the cold, and the well furred tail can be wrapped around the body like a warm muff. The well developed nictitating membrane (third eyelid) may afford protection against both the cold winds and the regular dust storms which arise in parts of their range. They are able to climb rocky crevices and cliff faces with ease. The flat head and low set ears are thought to be adaptations for stalking prey in open areas with relatively little cover. They hide for much of the day in caves or hollows under stones, or may adopt the burrows of other creatures such as marmots or foxes.
Activity peaks at dusk and dawn, but they may be active at anytime. Their most important prey species is the small pika, which comprise over 50% of their diet. They have three distinct hunting techniques; stalking by creeping around cover; moving and flushing animals out of hiding; and waiting in ambush at rodent burrows. They are not known to kill any livestock or poultry.
Body weight varies widely by the season. Females are at their lowest in winter and when raising kittens, males are lowest during breeding season. Their mating call is said to resemble a cross between the bark of a small dog and the hoot of an owl.
The Mongolian Carnivore Project began in 2005 to study all carnivores in a nature reserve located in the semi desert steppes of Mongolia. Pallas’ Cats in the study were captured by hand, and the docile animals rarely fled when approached. Cats in their study area were nocturnal, and rested in shallow rock crevices in steep, semid desert areas during the day. They hunted on the open grasslands where the density of small mammals was highest.
Breeding is highly seasonal with mating taking place December-March and kittens born late March-May. The duration of oestrous in females is only 24-48 hours. Gestation has been measured between 66 and 75 days in captivity, and kittens have been born in late April and May in Siberia. The litter size is one to six, usually three or four. Kittens have a dark, woolly coat without the frosted appearance of the adults. The striping on the sides is more pronounced in kittens and fades as they grow. They moult their juvenile coat around two months of age, at which time they weigh 500 – 600 grams. They are independent at 4-5 months, and achieve adult size and weight around eight months of age. Sexual maturity is reached at 9-10 months. Pallas’s Cats have lived up to 12 years of age in captivity.
Mortality is high in this species, with 68% of the kittens not surviving to disperse into their own ranges. Adult mortality is estimated at 50%, with most deaths occurring in the winter months of October-April. Known predators include large eagles, red fox and domestic dogs.
Pallas’ cats exist in naturally low densities, and are poorly adapted to avoid predators. Their dependence on specific habitats makes them vulnerable to many threats.
The fur of the Pallas’ Cat is luxuriant and valued on local fur markets. As many as 50,000 cats were killed per year for their pelts in the early 1900′s. Pelts are sometimes sold in China and Russia, but these cats are supposedly protected because of the rodent killing they do around human habitations, and hunting was banned in 1988. Many of the furs remain within the local populace and go into the sewing of caps, gloves, collars and ladies fur coats. The fur is prized for its warmth and durability.
Habitat degradation by increased human presence, agriculture and livestock are depleting the natural prey base of the Pallas’ cat. Domestic dogs are a key predator and human factors, including dogs, account for 56% of deaths in central Mongolia. The cats are sometimes mistakenly killed by marmot hunters who are targeting one of the Pallas’ cat’s main prey species.
The population in Mongolia is threatened by over-hunting and poaching. They can be legally hunted for “household purposes”, and hunters can obtain permits from local governments. Law enforcement is weak however, and there are no controls. They are hunted for their fur which is sold to Chinese traders for manufacture into hats and coats for Russian and Chinese markets. They are also sought for body parts, and used locally for medicinal purposes such as using their fat to relieve frostbite.
Perhaps the most serious threat to this small cat is the government sanctioned poisoning campaigns to control pika populations, which take place on a large scale in Russia and China.
The best hope for Pallas’ Cat is that the inaccessibility and desolation of their habitat will help keep their numbers from being too decimated. Conservation measures must include improving law enforcement efforts and revamping the hunting permit system.
Photo © Ben Williams
Range Map IUCN Red List (2008)