The sand cat (Felis margarita), also known as the sand dune cat, is the only cat living foremost in true deserts. This small cat is widely distributed in the deserts of North Africa and Southwest and Central Asia. Since 2002, it has been listed as Near Threatened by IUCN because the population is considered fragmented and small with a declining trend.
Sand cats are found in both sandy and stony desert, living in areas far from water. Having thickly furred feet, they are well adapted to the extremes of a desert environment and tolerant of extremely hot and cold temperatures.
Victor Loche first described the sand cat in 1858 from a specimen found in the Sahara. He proposed to name the species in recognition of Jean Auguste Margueritte who headed the expedition into the Sahara.
The sand cat is a small, stocky cat with short legs and a relatively long tail. The fur is of a pale sandy ocherous color. Markings vary between individuals: some have neither spots nor stripes, some are faintly spotted, some have both spots and stripes. There are blackish bars on the limbs, and the tail has a black tip with two or three dark rings alternating with buff bands. In northern regions, the sand cat's winter coat is very long and thick, with hairs reaching up to 2 in (5.1 cm) in length. The lower and upper lips, chin, throat and belly are white. The ears are tawny brown at the base with a black tip. The lower part of the face is whitish, and a faint reddish line runs from the outer corner of each eye, angling down across the cheek. The large and greenish yellow eyes are surrounded by a white ring, and the naked tip of the nose is black. 
Its head and body length ranges from 39 to 52 cm (15 to 20 in), with a 23.2 to 31 cm (9.1 to 12.2 in) long tail. It weighs from 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). The auditory bullae and the passages from the external ears to the ear drums are greatly enlarged relative to other small felids. The undersides of the paws are protected from extreme temperatures by a thick covering of fur. The head is broad. The pinna of the ears is triangular, and the ear canal is very wide, giving the cat an enhanced sense of hearing. The ears are large and more pointed than in the manul. They are set low, giving a broad flat appearance to the head. This trait may protect the inner ears from wind-blown sand and aid detection of movements of subterranean prey. A highly developed hearing capacity is important for locating prey, which is not only sparsely distributed in arid environments, but also found underground.
The sand cat’s claws on the forelimbs are short and very sharp, the ones on the hind feet are small and blunt. The long hairs growing between its toes create a cushion of fur over the foot pads, helping to insulate them while moving over hot sand. This feature makes the cat's tracks obscure and difficult to identify and follow.
Distribution and habitat
Sand cats are found primarily in both sandy and stony desert and have a wide but apparently disjunct distribution through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. They prefer flat or undulating terrain with sparse vegetation, avoiding bare sand dunes, where there is relatively little food. They can survive in temperatures ranging from −5 °C (23 °F) to 52 °C (126 °F), retreating into burrows during extreme conditions. Although they will drink when water is available, they are able to survive for months on the water in their food.
In North Africa, sand cats occur marginally in western Morocco, including former Sahara Occidental, in Algeria, and from the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt to the Sinai peninsula. Sightings have been reported from Tunisia, Libya, Mali and Niger. In Mauritania, they probably occur in the Adrar mountains and the Majabat al Koubra. Spoor have been found in Senegal, Chad, and Sudan.
In the early 1990s, several sand cats were radio-collared in southern Israel. In the late 1990s, they were also recorded in Jordan. Sand cats were sighted and camera trapped in a protected area near Palmyra in Syria in 2000 and 2001. In 2012, sand cats were recorded for the first time in Iraq, in the Al Najaf desert.
In central Asia, sand cats occur east of the Caspian sea throughout the Karakum Desert from the Ustyurt Plateau in the northwest to the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south extending through the Kyzylkum Desert to the Syr Darya River and the northern border to Afghanistan.
Distribution of subspecies
Subsequent to Loche’s first description of a sand cat from Algeria, several subspecies have been described, of which the following are recognized today:
- Felis margarita margarita (Loche 1858) − ranges from Algeria southwards to Asben in northern Nigeria, Sinai and Arabia;
- Felis margarita thinobius (Ognev 1926) − ranges from the Karakum Desert to the southeast of Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan and the southern Kyzylkum desert to the west of Bukhara in Uzbekistan and in the Transcaspian area to Repetek;
- Felis margarita scheffeli (Hemmer, 1974) − lives in the Nushki desert of Pakistan;
- Felis margarita harrisoni (Hemmer, Grubb and Groves, 1976) − ranges in the Arabian Peninsula.
Pocock also described two sand cat skins from the Algerian Sahara and the former French Sudan. The proposed subspecies F. m. meinertzhageni and F. m. aïrensis are not recognized as valid subspecies.
Ecology and behavior
Sand cats live solitary lives outside of the mating season. They communicate using scent and claw marks on objects in their range and by urine spraying. They do not leave their feces in exposed locations as many other felids do. They make vocalizations similar to domestic cats but also make loud, high-pitched barking sounds, especially when seeking a mate. Hearing plays an important role in intraspecific communication; sand cats make a short, rasping bark in connection with mating activity.
They inhabit burrows and use either abandoned fox or porcupine burrows or enlarge those dug by gerbils or other rodents. The burrow is about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) deep and dug in slightly slanting ground with a single entrance, but also two or three were observed. In winter, they stay in the sun during the day, but during the hot season, they are crepuscular and nocturnal.
Their way of moving is distinct: with belly to the ground, they move at a fast run punctuated with occasional leaps. They are capable of sudden bursts of speed and can sprint at speeds of 30 to 40 km (19 to 25 mi) per hour. During a radio telemetry study in Israel, sand cats were found to have large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi). They have been recorded to move long distances of 5–10 km (3.1–6.2 mi) in a single night and were generally active throughout the night, hunting and travelling an average of 5.4 km (3.4 mi). Before retiring below ground at dawn, the observed cats adopted the same lookout position at the mouth of the burrow. Different cats used burrows interchangeably and did not change burrows during the day.
Small rodents are their primary prey, with records from Africa including spiny mice, jirds, gerbils, jerboas, and young of cape hare. They have also been observed to hunt small birds like Greater Hoopoe Lark, Desert Lark, and consume reptiles such as Desert Monitor, Fringe-toed lizards, sandfish, short-fingered gecko, horned and sand vipers, and insects. They are capable of satisfying their moisture requirements from their prey but drink readily if it is available. They can dig rapidly to extract their prey from the ground and bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.
Reproduction and life cycle
Oestrus in sand cats lasts from five to six days and is accompanied by calling and increased scent marking. An average litter of three kittens is born after 59 to 66 days, typically around April or May, although in some areas, sand cats may give birth to two litters per year. The kittens weigh 39 to 80 grams (1.4 to 2.8 oz) at birth, with spotted pale yellow or reddish fur. They grow relatively rapidly, reaching three quarters of the adult size within five months of birth. Sand cats are fully independent by the end of their first year and reach sexual maturity not long after.
Of 228 sand cats born in zoos globally to the year 2007, only 61% lived to day 30. They died primarily due to maternal neglect by first-time mothers. They can live up to 13 years in captivity. The life expectancy of sand cats in the wild has not been documented.
Habitat degradation is the major threat to the sand cat. Vulnerable arid ecosystems are being rapidly degraded by human settlement and activity, especially livestock grazing. The sand cat's small-mammal prey-base depends on having adequate vegetation, which may experience large fluctuations due to drought or declines due to desertification and loss of natural vegetation. They also may be killed in traps laid out by inhabitants of oases targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens. There are occasional reports of animals shot in southeast Arabia. Other localized threats include the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition and through predation and disease transmission.
Felis margarita is listed on CITES Appendix II. Hunting is prohibited in Algeria, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan and Tunisia. No legal protection exists in Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo started a sand cat reintroduction project in Israel's Arava Desert. Several captive-born individuals from the zoo's population were kept in an acclimatization enclosure but did not survive subsequent release into the wild.
Captive sand cats are highly sensitive to respiratory diseases and infection of the upper respiratory tract. This is the main cause of death in adults. The most common disease is infectious rhinotracheitis. With sand cats being very susceptible to respiratory infections, they have to be kept in very arid enclosures where humidity and temperature do not fluctuate.
As of July 2009, the global captive population comprised 200 individuals in 45 institutions. As of May 2010, 29 sand cats were kept in 12 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited institutions participating in the Species Survival Plan. In January 2010, the Al Ain Zoo announced the first success of an in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedure on sand cats, resulting in the birth of two kittens at its facilities. In July 2012, four sand cat kittens were born at the Ramat Gan Zoo as part of the European Endangered Species Programme.
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- Species portrait sand cat; IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group
- Sand Cats Website about sand cats
- Sand Cat Working Group