These adorable litter cats could be under threat

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(CNN) It was only seven years ago that sand kitties were first photographed in the wild. Unsurprisingly, pictures of the fluffy little cats went viral on the internet. Few people had ever seen these desert-dwelling balls of fluff before, and scientists knew very little about the species.

But thanks to new research, that’s starting to change. In March, it was published in the Diary of arid environments. It provides the largest dataset ever recorded on the range of sand cats, and reveals how these elusive wild cats survive in harsh, dry environments in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest and Central Asia.

In appearance, sand cats are similar to their domestic relatives, but are slightly smaller and have larger ears to listen for their prey. Though equally adorable, these cats are not for petting. They are deadly killers, and the report finds evidence that they feed on rodents and reptiles, including venomous snakes.

The sand cat has been observed hunting the venomous Saharan horned viper, shown here buried in the sand.

“They eat several (prey items) a night to get their energy intake and don’t drink at all,” says Dr. Grégory Breton, managing director of Panthera France, the global feral cat conservation organization, and co-author of the study. . “They depend on the blood of their prey for fluids and water.”

Cats are also extraordinarily stealthy. Their sandy color camouflages them in the desert environment, they bury their feces and leave no remains of their prey, while the sand quickly erases their paw prints.

This elusive nature is certainly one reason sand cats have been so underreported, Breton says. Although the species was first scientifically recorded in 1858 -after being seen in the north of the Sahara by a French soldier- only a few investigative articles have been published since then, many with scant data.

However, the mystery surrounding the sand cat is what piqued Breton’s curiosity, leading him to begin researching the species in 2013. “They’re very fascinating because nothing has actually been done to them,” he says, and adds that a deeper understanding of the species could help. to inform conservation efforts.

Small cats travel long distances.

The study, which was carried out in collaboration between Panthera, the Cologne Zoo and the Rabat Zoo, focused on an area of ​​scorching desert in southern Morocco where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit ). A team of five, including scientists and a veterinarian, captured and placed VHF radio collars on 22 sand cats and followed and observed them on and off between 2015 and 2019.

The results were amazing, says Breton. “We are rejecting many of the assumptions that were made before.”

Sand cats travel farther at night than any other cat of their size.

The first of these is a new estimate of the range of the sand cat. Previous studies suggested that litter cats move through an area of up to 50 square kilometers (19 square miles), but Breton’s team showed that its range is much greater, with a 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 range even rivals that of much larger cats such as lions, tigers and leopards, Breton says.

The study also suggests that sand cats may lead a nomadic lifestyle, moving from home to home depending on rainfall or environmental conditions. While more research is needed 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 behaviors,” she adds.

endangered sand cats

The report’s findings could have serious implications for the conservation status of the sand cat. The species is currently listed as “least concernby the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but new information on range size could mean the population is smaller than previous estimates, and the authors urge the IUCN to reconsider listing of the sand cat

Breton believes sand cats may be more threatened than previously thought, “given their range, limited resources, and fragile ecosystem.”

Sand cats are likely to become more threatened as climate change affects their habitat.

It points out that its desert habitat is extremely fragile and vulnerable to climate change. There are also local threats from sheepdogs that sometimes kill sand cats; domestic cats carrying diseases dangerous to 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 “understudied cat species.” He believes it will be useful in the ongoing reassessment of the litter cat roster. But he cautions that the study is from an area at the western end 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 further research will be key to protecting sand cats and encourages other scientists to conduct similar studies across the species’ full range. “We need to better understand their behavior, how they move and use the landscape, and clearly identify threats,” she says.