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It was only seven years ago that sand kittens were photographed in the wild for the first time. Unsurprisingly, images of the tiny, furry cats went viral on the internet. Few people had seen these desert-dwelling fluffballs before and scientists knew very little about the species.
But thanks to new research, this is beginning to change. In March, a four-year-long study on sand cats was published in the Journal of Arid Environments. It provides the largest dataset on the home range of sand cats ever recorded and reveals how these elusive wild cats survive in harsh, dry environments across North Africa, the Middle East and southwest and central Asia.
In looks, sand cats are similar to their domestic relatives but they are slightly smaller and have larger ears to hear their prey. Although equally adorable, these cats are not for petting. They are lethal killers, with the report finding evidence of them preying on rodents and reptiles, including venomous snakes.
“They eat several (prey) per night to get their energy intake and they don’t drink at all,” says Dr. Grégory Breton, managing director of Panthera France, the global wild cat conservation organization, and co-author of the study. “They rely on the blood from their prey to get fluid and water.”
The cats are also extraordinarily stealthy. Their sandy color camouflages them in the desert environment, they bury their feces and they don’t leave remains of their prey, while sand quickly sweeps away their paw prints.
This elusive nature is no doubt one of the reasons sand cats have been so under-reported, says Breton. Although the species was first scientifically recorded in 1858 – after being spotted in the northern Sahara by a French soldier – there have only been a handful of research articles published on it since, many with scant data.
Yet the mystery around the sand cat is what sparked Breton’s curiosity, leading him to start researching the species in 2013. “They are very fascinating because nothing has really been done on them,” he says, adding that deeper understanding of the species could help to inform conservation efforts.
Small cats travel huge distances
The study, which was carried out in partnership between Panthera, Cologne Zoo and Rabat Zoo, focused on an area of scorching desert in southern Morocco, where temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). A team of five, including scientists and a veterinarian, captured and fitted 22 sand cats with VHF radio collars and intermittently followed and observed them between 2015 and 2019.
The results were astonishing, says Breton. “We are rejecting many of the assumptions that were made before.”
The first of these is a new estimate for the sand cat’s home range. Previous studies suggested that sand cats move across an area of up to 50 square kilometers (19 square miles), but Breton’s team showed their range to be far bigger – with one sand cat covering an area of up to 1,758 square kilometers (679 square miles) in just over six months. The report notes that sand cats appear to travel greater distances than any other cat of their size, including black-footed cats and African wildcats. In fact, their ranges even rival that of much larger cats such as lions, tigers and leopards, says Breton.
The study also suggests that sand cats may lead a nomadic lifestyle, shifting from one home to another depending on rainfall or environmental conditions. While more research needs to be done to confirm this theory, Breton believes it would be “a real breakthrough” because no other wild cat species is known to be nomadic. “The desert environment is the driving force behind their habits and behavior,” he adds.
Sand cats in danger
The report’s findings could have serious implications for the sand cat’s conservation status. The species is currently listed as “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but the new information on home range sizes could mean that the population is smaller than previous estimates, and the authors are urging the IUCN to reconsider the sand cat’s listing.
Breton thinks the sand cats may be more endangered than was previously thought, “given their home range, the limited resources and the fragile ecosystem.”
He notes that their desert habitat is extremely fragile and vulnerable to climate change. There are also local threats from shepherd dogs that sometimes kill sand cats; domestic cats carrying diseases that are dangerous for the wild species; and there have also been cases of sand cats being captured for the illegal pet trade, he adds.
Urs Breitenmoser, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, welcomes the new research on the “understudied cat species.” He believes it will be useful in the ongoing reassessment of the sand cat’s listing. But he cautions that the study is from one area on the far western edge of the sand cat’s wide range.
“The question will be how representative the new information is for the entire species and distribution range,” he says.
Breton believes that further research will be key to protecting the sand cats and he encourages other scientists to carry out similar studies across the species’ range. “We need to better understand their behavior, how they move and use the landscape, and to clearly identify the threats,” he says.