Gray, 1843 (Felis caracal Schreber, 1776)
The caracal // (Caracal caracal), also known as the desert lynx, is a wild cat widely distributed across Africa, Central Asia, and Southwest Asia into India. In 2002, the IUCN listed the caracal as Least Concern, as it is widespread and relatively common. The felid is considered threatened in North Africa, and rare in the central Asian republics and India.
The specific name is attributed to the German scientist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber who described Felis caracal in 1776 from a specimen collected near the Table Mountain, South Africa, which is considered the type locality of the species. The generic name Caracal was first used by the British naturalist John Edward Gray in 1843 on the basis of a type specimen collected near the Cape of Good Hope.
The word 'caracal' is derived from the Turkish words kara kulak, which means "black ear". In Persian, the caracal is known as سیاهگوش siyāh-gōsh, also meaning "black ear". In North India, it is known as स्याहगोश syahgosh.
It is also called African lynx, Asian lynx, and desert lynx, though it is not a member of the genus Lynx. The local Toubou name is ngam ouidenanga, meaning gazelle cat. In Afrikaans, it is called rooikat.
Taxonomy and evolution
The caracal became first known to science through Walter Charleton in 1677. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon published a description and illustration of the caracal in the late 18th century. Schreber subordinated the caracal to the genus Felis in 1776.
The caracal is distinguished from Felis by the presence of a long tuft on the tip of the ears, exceeding half their length. No trace of pattern remains in the coat, except a few spots on the underside and inside of the fore legs. It is a slender, long-legged cat of medium size with a relatively short tail. The fur on the back and sides is generally of a uniform tawny grey or reddish, frosted-sand colour. The belly and the undersides of the legs and chest are whitish and spotted or blotched with pale markings. The tufted ears are black-backed. Black caracals also occur. The skull is high and rounded. The jaw is short, stoutly built, and equipped with large, powerful teeth. About 92% of caracals lack the second upper premolar teeth. Males reach a head and body length of 75 to 105.7 cm (29.5 to 41.6 in), with a 23.1- to 34-cm-long tail, and weigh 8.0 to 20 kg (17.6 to 44.1 lb). Females are smaller with a head and body length of 69 to 102.9 cm (27.2 to 40.5 in) and a tail 19.5 to 34 cm (7.7 to 13.4 in) long. They weigh from 7.0 to 15.9 kg (15.4 to 35.1 lb).
Facial markings comprise a dark line running down the center of the forehead to near the nose, and another one running from the inner edge of the eye to the nostrils. The pupils of the eyes contract to form circles. A light-colored ring encircles the eyes, and a rather indistinct dark brown patch occurs over each eye. White patches occur on either side of the nose. The inner surface of the pinna is covered with small white hairs. Numerous stiff hairs emerge from between the pads and probably are an adaption for moving through soft sand.
Ecology and behaviour
Adult caracals are solitary, but they have also been observed in pairs. They produce the usual range of sounds for cats, including growling, hissing, purring, and calling. Unusually, they also make a barking sound, which is possibly used as a warning. They scent mark their territory, leave faeces in visible locations, and mark territory by spraying urine onto bushes or logs, or raking it into the ground with their hind feet.
Their home ranges are large in arid areas. Three males averaged 316.4 km2 (122.2 sq mi) on Namibian ranchland. In northern Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 to 1,116 km2 (104 to 431 sq mi) in different seasons. In an agricultural area in Israel's Negev Desert, male home ranges averaged 220.6 km2 (85.2 sq mi). Home range size was positively correlated with body weight, and negatively correlated with prey availability. Male home ranges overlapped substantially (50%), and typically included those of several females. Two dispersals were observed: a male migrated 60 to 90 km (37 to 56 mi) south before establishing a home range, whereas a female remained in the vicinity of her natal range, with her range partly overlapping that of her mother. Twenty caracals, several of them transients, were found to use an area of 100 km2 (39 sq mi) with some ranging outside this area, making for a relatively high local density despite the large home ranges. Male home ranges in better-watered environments of South Africa are smaller. In the West Coast National Park, South Africa, home ranges of two males averaged 26.9 km2 (10.4 sq mi), and those of three females 7.39 km2 (2.85 sq mi). Male home ranges overlapped completely with those of females, whereas female ranges overlapped between zero and 19%. Caracal were active by night and day, and significantly longer on nights colder than 20°C. Males moved more than twice the distance of females during an active period.
Caracals can survive without drinking for a long period—their water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of prey. They are known for their ability to capture birds by leaping 2 m (6.6 ft) or more into the air from a standing start. They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 5 m (16 ft) before suddenly sprinting. They kill smaller prey with a bite to the nape of the neck, and larger animals by biting the throat and then raking with their claws. They sometimes cover larger prey if they cannot consume the whole carcass in a single meal, and return to it later. Some have even been observed to hide carcasses in trees. They live mainly on prey smaller than 5 kg (11 lb), including hyraxes, springhares, gerbils, mice, and birds. They are capable of taking antelopes, including species such as mountain reedbuck, springbok, common duiker, and steenbok. Occasionally, they tackle adult goitered gazelle.
Reproduction and life cycle
Mating occurs year round. In the Sahara, breeding is reported to occur primarily in midwinter. The caracal's estrus cycle lasts about 14 days, estrus lasts on about 1.8 days. Females copulate with several males in a "pecking order" which is related to the age and size of the male. One female was found to have mated with three different males during every estrous period, each time with the same individuals in the same sequence. Copulation lasts around 4 minutes.
Gestation lasts from 69 to 81 days, and litter size ranges from one to six kittens. Females use caves, tree cavities, or burrows as shelter when giving birth. Newborn kittens weigh 198 to 250 g (7.0 to 8.8 oz), and open their eyes between four and 10 days of age. Kittens venture outside the birthing den at around one month of age. Their deciduous teeth are fully developed at the age of 50 days. They are weaned at about 10 weeks. At around four or five months, the canine teeth appear, with the others following over the next six months. The young stay with their mother for up to one year, when they start to reach sexual maturity. In the wild, caracals have an average lifespan of 6 years, in captivity, they may live as long as 19 years.
Distribution and habitat
Caracals are common in parts of their sub-Saharan range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia, where they expand into new, and recolonize vacant, areas. They occur at much lower densities in Central and West Africa, where the carnivore community is more diverse. They occupy a wide variety of habitats from semidesert to relatively open savanna and scrubland to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen and montane forest such as in the Western Cape of South Africa. They prefer drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover. They also occur in the Saharan mountain ranges and semiarid woodlands. On the Arabian Peninsula, caracals occur throughout the mountain ranges and hilly steppe regions, but probably do not penetrate far into the great sand deserts of the interior.
The Caspian Sea, Ustyurt, and the Aral Sea constitute the northern distribution limit of caracals, which barely extends east of the Amu Darya. In Turkmenia, caracals were known from the coastal plains at the mouth of the Atrek River to the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, along the Tedzhen River, in the deserts along the Murghab River and east of the Kushka River. Their range extends southeastwards from Iran, through Pakistan and central India as far as Uttar Pradesh.
Distribution of subspecies
Subsequent to Schreber's first description of a caracal from South Africa, several subspecies were described, of which these are recognized today:
- C. c. caracal (Schreber, 1776) – inhabits South Africa
- C. c. nubicus (Fischer, 1829) – inhabits Nubia
- C. c. algira (Wagner, 1841) – ranges from Algeria through Tunesia to Morocco
- C. c. lucani (Rochebrune, 1885) – ranges from Angola to north of the Congo River basin
- C. c. schmitzi (Matschie, 1912) – ranges from the Dead Sea region through Syria and Pakistan to India
- C. c. poecilotis (Thomas and Hinton, 1921) – inhabits northern Nigeria
- C. c. damarensis (Roberts, 1926) – inhabits southwest Africa
- C. c. limpopoensis (Roberts, 1926) – inhabits Transvaal
Habitat destruction due to agriculture and desertification is a significant threat in central, west, north and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed. It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range. As caracals are capable of taking small domestic livestock, they are often subject to persecution. Severity of depredation appears to be dependent on the availability of wild prey and husbandry techniques.
In Iran, the killing of small livestock has brought the caracal into serious conflict with local people, who sometimes make efforts to eradicate it. The cat has never been recorded to be killed in road incidents, and no severe poaching pressure on it appears to happen.
Populations in Asian range states are included in CITES Appendix I; populations in African range states are included in Appendix II. Hunting of the species is prohibited in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In sub-Saharan Africa, the caracal is protected from hunting in about half of its range states. In Namibia and South Africa, the caracal is classified as a "problem animal", which permits landowners to kill the species without restriction; nonetheless, caracal have persisted and remain widespread.
As of November 2009, 18 caracals were kept in 12 AZA-accredited institutions participating in the Population Management Plan. In 1998, a caracal was hybridised with a domestic cat at the Moscow Zoo.
Historically, caracals have been used in India for hunting and blood sports. A popular sport in India was to have a captive caracal set upon a flock of pigeons, whereupon bets were made on how many birds could be taken down by the cat. A practiced caracal could ground as many as a dozen birds. Today, as well as in the past, caracals have occasionally been kept as exotic pets in Africa, India, North America and elsewhere. It has been claimed caracals are "suitable as pets" because they are "easily tamed", but caracals have also been claimed to attack people other than their owner.
Caracals appear to have held some religious significance for the ancient Egyptians. They were found in wall paintings, their bodies embalmed, and sculptures of caracals and other cats guarded tombs.
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The dictionary definition of caracal at Wiktionary
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- Species portrait Caracal; IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park: Caracal
- The Cederberg Caracal Project
- Feline Conservation Federation: Caracal