Today is Pallas’s Cat Day, and I’ll bet it’s a wild cat about which you know very little. That’s okay. Neither do many scientists.
The Pallas’s cat has been classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List since 2002, negatively affected by habitat degradation, prey base decline, and hunting. It is native to the steppe regions of Central Asia, where it inhabits elevations of up to 16,570 ft in the Tibetan Plateau. It is also found in parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, India, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, and occur across much of western China. It can also be found in southern Russia.
It’s not one of the big cats found in the wild. It’s about the size of the domestic cat and weighs between 5-1/2 and 10 lbs. (smaller than any of my cats.)
Its fur is ochre with dark vertical bars on the torso and forelegs. There are clear black rings on the tail and dark spots on the forehead. The cheeks are white with narrow black stripes running from the corners of the eyes. The chin and throat are also white, merging into the greyish, silky fur of the underparts. Concentric white and black rims around the eyes accentuate their rounded shape. The legs are proportionately shorter than those of other cats, the ears are set very low and wide apart, and the claws are unusually short. The face is shorter and appears flatter than other cats. The pupils are circular rather than vertical slits. The short jaw has fewer teeth than is typical among cats, with the first pair of upper premolars missing, but the canine teeth are large.
Pallas’s cats are solitary–kinda like you and me during the quarantine. Both males and females scent mark their territory. They spend the day in caves, rock crevices, or marmot burrows, and emerge in the late afternoon to begin hunting. They are not fast runners, and hunt primarily by ambush or stalking, using low vegetation and rocky terrain for cover. They feed largely on gerbils, pikas, voles and chukar partridges, and sometimes catch young marmots.
Pallas’s cats give birth to a litter of two to six kittens after a gestation period of 66 to 75 days, typically in April or May. Such large litters may compensate for a high rate of infant mortality in the harsh environment. The young are born in sheltered dens lined with dried vegetation, feathers, and fur. The kittens weigh around (3.2 oz) at birth and have a thick coat of fuzzy fur, which is replaced by the adult coat after around two months. They are able to begin hunting at four months and reach adult size at six months. They have been reported to live up to 11 years in captivity.
The Pallas’s cat has been hunted for its fur in relatively large numbers in China, Mongolia, and Russia; international trade in manul pelts largely ceased since the late 1980s. About 1,000 hunters of Pallas’s cats remain in Mongolia, with a mean estimated take of 2,000 cats per year. Cats are also shot when mistaken for the commonly hunted marmot and trapped incidentally in both legholds set for wolves and foxes and snares set for marmots and hares. They are also killed by herding dogs. While Mongolia has not recorded any trophy exports, pelt exports have grown since 2000, with 143 reported exported in 2007.
Hunting is prohibited in all range countries except Mongolia, where the species has no legal protection despite being classified as Near Threatened in the country. Since 2009, it is legally protected in Afghanistan, where all hunting and trade in its parts is banned.
The cat is being studied in the Daursky Nature Reserve in Russia to obtain new information about habitats and migrations and to estimate the survival rate of kittens and adult cats.
As of 2010, there were 47 Pallas’s cats in 19 member institutions of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; four litters were expected. No births and three deaths occurred in 2009. The 30-day mortality of 44.9% is the highest mortality rate of any small wild cat. The seasonality of its reproduction makes it difficult to control reproductive cycles. Keeping Pallas’s cats healthy in captivity is difficult. They breed well, but survival rates are low owing to infections, which are attributed to an underdeveloped immune system and exposure to viruses not present in their natural high-altitude habitat.
In June 2010, five kittens were born in the Red River Zoo in Fargo, USA. A female was artificially inseminated for the first time at the Cincinnati Zoo and gave birth to three kittens in June 2011. In May 2013, three kittens were born at the Nordens Ark zoo in Sweden. In May 2016, four kittens were born at the Korkeasaari zoo in Finland. In March 2017, five kittens were born in the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah. In April 2017, five kittens were again born in the Red River Zoo in Fargo. In April 2019, Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, Illinois announced five kittens have been born in their successful breeding program after importing a male from the Czech Republic. Let’s hope that successful breeding programs can keep the species going for generations to come.
Want to know more? Check out the video!