Sand Cat

Felis margarita

Quick Bio for Sand Cats:

Status: Near Threatened
have from 2-8 kittens, usually 4
Weight: 1-3 kg
Diet: Carnivore, Insectivore

Physical description of Sand Cats

At 2-3 kg, the sand cat is not big, about the size of domestic cats, or just a little smaller.

They are nocturnal, which makes sense living in such hot areas. Because of this, they do have a thick coat. The fur is necessary to protect them from the harsh night temperatures felt in some parts of the desert. As sand cats hunt at night, they rely largely on smell and sound for hunting. Their ear structures are relatively large compared to other cats.

This is not just to do with hearing better; the outer part of the ear is distinctively enlarged to protect against the sand of the desert. Another necessary adaptation for the desert is the fur on their paws, which protects them from the harsh ground temperatures in the desert.

Interestingly, that also makes it very difficult to track them down, as it obscures their footprints in the sand.

Colorwise, shall we say they are sand colored? You can decide for yourself what color sand is. It can be grey or somewhat orange. The sand cat matches this range but has a distinctive white chest. The tail is generally subtly striped.

Distribution and habitat of Sand Cats

The Sand Cat is found in the main desert areas of the Old World. From Morocco in the west to Turkmenistan in the North East, but not everywhere within this range. While the area is all desert, it isn’t all sandy. Some desert is rocky, and not even less grows there than in the sandy areas.

The sand cat can be found most easily in Morocco, Algeria and Niger, Saudi Arabia and surrounding areas, Iran and Turkmenistan, and also Pakistan.

However, despite the name, the sand cat doesn’t just live in sand. It lives in very dry, arid habitats. Simply said, anywhere with minimal vegetation; sandy areas and rocky areas with limited shrubs. These areas are often extremely hot and have large temperature swings at night.

Sand Cat (Felis margarita) cautiously emerges from its hiding spot amidst a cluster of stones, showing its elusive nature and adaptation to desert environments.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Sand Cat (Felis margarita) cautiously emerges from its hiding spot amidst a cluster of stones, showing its elusive nature and adaptation to desert environments.

Sand Cat behavior

A unique feature of the sand cat is its digging ability. This is a feature of a lot of desert-dwelling animals. Burrows help to escape the harsh temperatures experienced in areas devoid of vegetation. They don’t burrow deeply but just enough to escape the daytime temperatures.

Being nocturnal, they are especially challenging to study. Also, the harsh climate they live in is often devoid of humans, and so they might be very widespread compared to what we know. It is rather difficult to be confident since, as mentioned above, they don’t leave many footprints to help with observations. Another peculiarity I have seen mentioned is that they close their eyes in the presence of humans to prevent eyeshine from giving their position away at night.

Sound is used for communication, which is probably no surprise given their well-developed ears. During the courting period, they call to each other with a barking sound so they can find one another from afar.

What do Sand Cats eat?

I guess there is no surprise in saying that sand cats are carnivorous, like all cats. They eat what is available in the more desolate areas and what is suitable for their small size. Small mammals, reptiles, birds and insects are on the menu., as are snakes and scorpions. Any rodents that get in their way will make for a nice meal.

Despite their small size, they are excellent hunters and will take advantage of any available prey. A critical aspect of living in the desert is the lack of water, and so to get liquids, a sand cat will eat anything it can for the water content.

Mating and Parental care of Sand Cats

Wild nocturnal cats that live in the desert are hard to study. Current research indicates that their behavior is solitary.

Reproduction occurs at different times across their range. Their gestation period is relatively short, and they give birth to about four kittens, sometimes twice as many. They stay with their mother for about six months before independence but don’t mature fully until they are a year old.

This tender moment Sand Cat (Felis margarita) mother attentively cares for her adorable kitten.
Licensed from Shutterstock
This tender moment Sand Cat (Felis margarita) mother attentively cares for her adorable kitten.

Who preys on Sand Cats?

Sand cats don’t have tons of predators living in the areas they do. The large mammal count in the desert isn’t massive, so there are not a lot of larger predators.

Jackals are one species that do prey on them. Birds of prey will take advantage, as will snakes. Fortunately for the sand cat, there are few of these in the areas in which the cat makes its home.

Unfortunately, humans also prey on the sand cat. Mostly, it is for the pet trade. However, given the range of the cat, in areas where humans rarely tread, it is possibly at least risk from direct human interference. With climate change and rising temperatures though, the desert could become completely inhospitable very soon. Even if the cats might not mind the higher temperatures, if their prey can’t cope, this lack of prey might reduce the moisture available to the sand cat to unsustainable levels.

Sand Cats and their ecosystem

The role of the sand cat in the ecosystem is not well known. Obviously, as a relatively apex predator, it keeps other populations in check. How necessary this is is a question still to be answered. As a prey animal itself, it might be essential, but generally, predators that are prey animals themselves aren’t significant food sources for others but rather supplemental to other prey in the ecosystem.

Because of its difficult habitat, the sand cat is not very numerous across its range. It is something of a specialist in a quite harsh climate and is therefore relatively rare. Because of this, studies of the cat are not that numerous, and there are still questions to be resolved about the sand cat regarding the information above.

Impact of Sand Cats on the human economy

I am not sure the sand cat has any direct economic benefit to humans. They are traded as illegal pets, unfortunately, and some people do benefit. The biggest benefit is indirect. Biodiversity is an essential cornerstone of our shared, worldwide ecosystem.

Because of their small size, they don’t hunt livestock. Given their rarity in human-inhabited areas, they don’t transmit disease.

The elusive Sand Cat (Felis margarita), with its striking sand-colored coat, proves challenging to photograph, primarily due to its nocturnal nature. Capturing the full allure of its beautifully camouflaged fur under the cloak of night is a rare feat among wild cats, highlighting the unique challenges of documenting these secretive creatures in their natural habitat.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The elusive Sand Cat (Felis margarita), with its striking sand-colored coat, proves challenging to photograph, primarily due to its nocturnal nature. Capturing the full allure of its beautifully camouflaged fur under the cloak of night is a rare feat among wild cats, highlighting the unique challenges of documenting these secretive creatures in their natural habitat.

Conservation status and human impact on Sand Cats

As previously mentioned, studies are rare due to the desert habitat. Due to the degradation of desert habitat in a warming climate, they are added to the CITES appendix II. This is because their habitat is at risk rather than the animal itself. Actual numbers of the cat are hard to come by, but the risk of desertification (and even creating completely lifeless deserts) is so high that the risk to sand cats is also high.

Other important information about Sand Cats

The four subspecies are:
Felis margarita margarita from North Africa
Felis margarita scheffeli from Pakistan
Felis margarita thinobia from Turkmenistan
Felis margarita harrisoni from Saudi Arabia

Sand Cat in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Felis margarita
Alternative Names
Sand Dune Cat
French Names
Chat des Sables
German Names
Sandkatze
Spanish Names
Gato de las Arenas, Gato Del Sahara
Swahili Names
Paka-mchanga

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