- The sand cat (Felis margarita) is a small, elusive wildcat exquisitely adapted to thrive in the deserts of northern Africa, Southwest and Central Asia — some of the hottest, driest habitat on the planet. These felids are near-impossible to see in the daytime and difficult to track at night. As a result, little is known about the species.
- Despite being challenged by limited resources, two European experts have repeatedly traveled to southern Morocco to study the sand cat. Their efforts, along with the rest of the Sand Cat Sahara Team, have led to the gathering of scientifically robust data that is lifting the lid on the secretive life of this tiny felid.
- The sand cat’s status is listed by the IUCN as “least concern” because there is little evidence to indicate its numbers are declining. But data across regions remain scant. New findings from southern Moroccan sand cat study sites beg for this conclusion to be reassessed, with possibly fewer sand cats existing than past estimates indicate.
- Tracking the sand cat’s changing conservation status is important because that data can indicate changes and trends in the ecologically sensitive environments in which they live. In addition, how they adapt, or fail to adapt, to climate change can give us clues to the resilience of species facing today’s extremes, especially desertification.
The sand cat flourishes in arguably some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Felis margarita, also called the sand dune cat, is superbly adapted to the extreme heat and drought of the African Sahara, the largest desert on the planet. But while the species also inhabits a vast home range stretching across the driest parts of Southwest and Central Asia, the individual animals are nearly impossible to see by day and challenging to track by night.
They rarely if ever drink water, relying on the prey they eat for the H2O they need. Their creamy striped coats blend perfectly into sand and rock landscapes. Their tiny bodies, weighing no more than six pounds, slip easily under the small bushes that shade them from scorching desert sun, or into underground burrows that hide the cats from prying eyes.
Thick black fur between their toes protects paws from the burning sand. This, and strong howling desert winds, are why these nocturnal hunters leave no prints behind. Their large ears can swivel and funnel desert sounds to an exceptionally large middle ear cavity, allowing the cats to hear the faint scratching of burrowing rodents up to 600 feet away, as well as detect and evade scientists who want to radio collar and study them.
When ‘stars align’
Little is known about F. margarita. Historical records are rare, with the first description by science not coming until 1858. Their geographic range is patched together from reported and alleged sightings, scant camera trap records and speculation. According to a 2016 IUCN assessment, the species roams harsh, often inaccessible sandy and stony deserts from Mauritania and Morocco in the west, to Pakistan and Kazakhstan in the east.
And yet “sometimes the stars align,” notes Grégory Breton, director of Panthera France, an NGO. In such rare moments, a window opens, bringing scientists and sand cats together, shining a light on the behaviors of this small cat.
In 2012, reports of regular sand cat sightings emerged from the Sahara in Morocco’s Adrar Souttouf region, and also along a paved desert road in the country’s Atlantic region. Those tantalizing glimpses caught the attention of Breton and fellow cat expert Alexander Sliwa, the curator of Germany’s Cologne Zoo.
Earlier, Sliwa had served as chair of felids, while Breton had served as deputy chair, for the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. In those roles, both recognized captive sand cats as a favorite felid under their care. Also, Sliwa had already advised on the 2008 IUCN species assessment.
Out of curiosity, they organized a small expedition in 2013, traveling from France and Germany to Morocco in their free time; there, they located three of the small wildcats. This was enough to spur them on and ask the Moroccan government for permits to initiate official research.
Harnessing limited resources and enduring challenging desert field conditions, their ongoing research is slowly revealing the once-private life of the world’s only true desert cat. The gains have been hard won, and many questions about the elusive felid remain.
The trouble with sand cats
The two scientists hoped to replicate the success Sliwa had been having in South Africa studying the small fearless black-footed cat. Collaring and night tracking those cats in rugged semiarid terrain starting in 1993 led to the publication of valuable data that helped conserve the species. Perhaps, they thought, they could apply Sliwa’s hard-earned field skills and techniques to achieve a similar feat in southern Morocco. But they soon learned that the sand cat presented its own unique set of challenges.
“Initially, we had a lot of difficulties to track them,” Breton remembers.
When they did find and collar a sand cat, the researchers often would inexplicably lose the radio signal. The cats would somehow disappear while being tracked, then suddenly reappear days or even months later. Between December 2015 and December 2019, they observed 47 sand cats, captured 41 and fitted 22 with very high frequency (VHF) radio collars. Of the 22 cats collared, 17 pulled off mysterious disappearing acts. However, one cat was tracked for more than a year (373 days), and nine more were tracked for nine months.
We didn’t understand what was going on, Breton recalls. Then came a lucky breakthrough on a particularly challenging day during their fifth Sahara expedition. They were startled to spot a male cat in the daytime. “You have a bigger chance to win the lottery than finding a sand cat in the day!” Breton explains, as the tiny cats are virtually “impossible” to see then.
This particular cat was one they’d collared months earlier. So the two researchers decided to return that night, six hours later, to track the cat. But by then, the signal had disappeared yet again. “Very annoyed,” the two searched until 4 a.m., without luck. They returned the next day, this time traveling far beyond their study area, which prompted a big discovery.
The signal range of their transmitters was only about 12 miles at best, Sliwa explains. Even within short range, the signal could suddenly be swallowed up and lost due to rugged terrain; the relative position of operator, cat and antenna; the strength and noise of wind; and myriad other factors. But on this day, Sliwa eventually picked up the faint “beep” of the collared cat in his earphones.
The two moved out by four wheel-drive vehicle and found the animal three hours later. Remarkably, the tiny cat had traversed more than 13 miles as the crow flies overnight! That’s what they recorded, Sliwa says, but he adds that this is a conservative estimate of distance traveled, as the hunting cat would not have moved in a straight line.
Finally, they understood the mystery: No one had previously guessed at the sweeping scope of a sand cat’s home territory, Breton says.
In fact, their home ranges are now thought likely to be the largest of the Felis (a genus of small cat species), and of all small cats. This discovery forced the two scientists to lower their expectations as to what they could achieve with their limited resources, seeing as their study subject was able to quickly move, undetected, far beyond the range of the only tracking equipment available for such small animals.
Despite these challenges, the Sand Cat Sahara Team has since then contributed some of the most comprehensive morphological and ecological data available on F. margarita. The team, established by Sliwa and Breton, with Saâd Azizi, a veterinarian at Jardin Zoologique National in Rabat, Morocco, also includes dedicated desert guides and local drivers able to move across rugged terrain by day or night.
Here’s some of what they’ve learned: Far-roaming sand cats don’t appear to be territorial and are quite tolerant of each other, with those observed generally in good physical condition, lacking wounds or broken teeth and with only a few scars indicative of intra-species fights. The cats might even aggregate when environmental conditions are favorable. The species seems not to restrict itself to a specific locale, can settle anywhere and then move off in any direction, at any time. Home ranges for males can extend over at least 120 square miles, and for females, at least a hundred. That’s quite remarkable for a wildcat whose head-and-body length ranges just 39-52 centimeters (15-20 inches), not including a very long tail. The researchers hypothesize that movements likely depend on age, environmental and climatic conditions and people within the landscape.
The researchers also hypothesize the little wildcats are partially migratory, leaving an area behind where it hasn’t rained for a long time and where vegetation, and then prey, have disappeared. But, Silwa adds, scientists don’t know exactly how the cats sense when it’s time to move on.
More recently, other researchers have contributed to sand cat knowledge in other regions. Projects have included camera trap surveys to study the status and ecology of the sand cat in the Uruq Bani Ma’arid Protected Area in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter and include feeding behavior observations in the southern Uzbekistan’s Kyzylkum Desert.
Still, the sand cat remains one of the most enigmatic of small wildcats. The most recent paper published by the Sand Cat Sahara Team notes that understanding of sand cat ecology is still limited, while social organization and mating patterns are largely unknown. Their diets, social organization and how they relate to environmental conditions and anthropogenic factors are important future research topics.
But one piece of data stands out: It does seem likely there are fewer sand cats today than conservationists originally thought.
Sand cat conservation status
According to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, the sand cat’s conservation status is “least concern.” The most recent assessment in 2016 notes that even though the species occurs naturally at low densities and confirmed records are sparse, estimated numbers exceed the threshold for threatened status. That assessment notes some local declines and several documented threats, including habitat intrusions by people and development, threats from domestic animals and ecosystem degradation, but there was no convincing evidence then to support a range-wide decline.
But the most recent data are sufficient to reconsider the sand cat’s conservation status and possibly update it to “vulnerable,” says Sliwa, who led the 2016 IUCN assessment. This is because sand cats are now believed unlikely to be spread equally across their home range, as earlier assumed, though it is still near-impossible to say whether numbers are going up or down.
Researchers will only be able to find out, Breton says, when technology improves, with the availability of small enough GPS collars to put on the cats and precisely track where they go. The two researchers hope to test just such GPS prototypes in 2024.
Those findings, when they come, will be relevant not just for the sand cat and its conservation. That’s because detailed GPS data will provide new detailed information not just about the animals, but where they live. The desert is not empty, Breton explains. It is a rich, finely balanced ecosystem — and one that is evolving as climate change and human development intrude.
The researchers’ field reports include sightings of African wildcats (F. lybica), African golden wolves (Canis lupaster), Rüppell’s fox (Vulpes rueppellii), fennec fox (V. zerda), and Saharan striped polecats (Ictonyx libycus) that feed on African savanna hares (Lepus microtis), gerbils (Dipodillus campestris) and lesser jerboas (Jaculus jaculus). The team has spotted golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) and long-legged buzzards (Buteo rufinus), and human desert dwellers too, including herders with dromedaries, sheep and goats. The sand cat is just one of many species perfectly adapted to this ultra-arid environment. So, the more scientists learn about sand cat behavior, the more they’ll know about the desert, how animals survive there,and how the driest biome on Earth is changing.
That’s especially important now, as global warming brings deeper drought around the globe, and desertification widens its grip from southern Spain to northern Africa and across central Asia and South America.
It’s known, for example, that sand cats kept in European and North American zoos can only thrive if kept within enclosures where temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. What, researchers wonder, will that mean to F. margarita and other desert species in a much hotter, drier world? Solving the mysteries of the sand cat may not only unlock the secrets of today’s deserts, but of the deserts of tomorrow as well.
The tiny cats, Breton points out, can help us foresee the yet unknown impacts of change on wildlife living at the outer edges of the extreme environments that the desert king calls home.
Banner image: The sand cat’s exceptional hearing helps the species hunt in the desert at night. Here, a sand cat was caught on camera with a meal clutched in its mouth. Image courtesy of Alexander Sliwa.
Amin, R., Wacher, T., Bruce, T., & Barichievy, C. (2021). The status and ecology of the sand cat in the Uruq bani Ma’arid protected area, empty quarter of Saudi Arabia. Mammalia, 85(3), 220-226. doi:10.1515/mammalia-2020-0031
Brighten, A. L., & Burnside, R. J. (2019). Insights into the feeding ecology of and threats to sand cat felis Margarita Loche, 1858 (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) in the Kyzylkum desert, Uzbekistan. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 11(4), 13492-13496. doi:10.11609/jott.4422.214.171.12492-13496
Sliwa A., Azizi S., Eddine M. Z., Alifal E., Breton G., (2023). Home ranges of African sand cats (Felis margarita margarita) Journal of Arid Environments 210 104909. doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2022.104909
Guglielmi, G. (2022). Climate change is turning more of Central Asia into desert. Nature. doi:10.1038/d41586-022-01667-2
Sliwa A., Breton G., Chevalier F., Sand cat sightings in the Moroccan Sahara, CAT news (newsletter of the Cat Specialist Group, a component of the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). No 59, Autumn 2013.
Breton G., Sliwa A., Azizi S., Essalhi A., Sand cats in the Moroccan Sahara — preliminary results of a new study, Cat News no. 63 Spring 2016.
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