The caracal (Caracal caracal) // is a medium-sized wild cat that is around one metre (3.3 ft) long. The caracal is sometimes called the desert lynx or African lynx, but it is not a member of the Lynx genus. The caracal is native to Africa, Central Asia, Southwest Asia and India. The cat's name comes from the Turkish word "karakulak", which means "black ear".
The most distinctive feature of the caracal is the long black tufts on the back of the ears roughly 4.4 centimetres (1.75 in) long. The caracal is often referred to as the desert lynx, although these black tufts are the only characteristic shared with the lynx. Its fur can range from tawny-brown to brick red. Caracals have white fur on the abdomen, chin and throat. Black lines run from the eye to the nose. Its fur coat is short and very dense. The ears are lightly colored in the front and are black in the back.
The caracal is the largest of Africa's "small cats." Males can weigh up to 18 kilograms (40 lb), and females up to 16 kilograms (35 lb). Caracals are about 40 centimetres (16 in) to 50 centimetres (20 in) tall at the shoulder. Caracals have a short tail. The male and female look the same. Its eye pupils shrink to circles, while other cats' pupils shrink to slits.
Evolution and taxonomy
The caracal is most closely related to the African golden cat (Caracal aurata), and likely diverged from the serval lineage within the last 5 million years, around the split between the Pliocene and Pleistocene eras. In the past, the caracal was classified with either the Lynx or Felis genera. However, recent molecular evidence now supports a monophyletic genus.
Caracals are nocturnal hunters. They are normally solitary animals, but some will stay in pairs. Social interactions usually only occur during mating, except mothers with kittens. Caracals can purr, hiss, snarl, bark and growl. The caracal breeds throughout the year. Females will have from one to six kittens per litter. The kittens become independent after about nine or ten months. The young then travel considerable distances to find and claim their own new territory. Females normally have one litter per year. In captivity, a caracal can live up to 16 years; in the wild, they live for 10 to 12 years. Females stay in one place to defend the territory, while males roam over larger areas. Both genders leave scent marks. The caracal's speed and agility makes them very good hunters; they are able to take down prey two to three times their size. Their powerful hind legs allow them to leap more than three metres (9.8 ft) into the air to catch birds on the wing. Caracals are primarily nocturnal, and occasionally arboreal although they usually stay on the ground.
Distribution and habitat
The caracal inhabits woodlands, savannas, semi-deserts, and scrub forests, and prefers arid habitats with lower rainfall and some coverage. Although it hunts on the ground, it can climb trees and swim swiftly to catch fish. They are not found in tropical rainforests. However, they will inhabit evergreen and montane forests.
The caracal is widely distributed across Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia into India. This small cat is distributed across all of Africa except for the equatorial forest belt and the central Sahara. The historical range of the caracal is similar to that of the cheetah; both overlap with the range of several small desert gazelles. However, the caracal remains today in a wider range. The caracal has remained in most of its historical range, although has lost a part of its range at the edges, especially in North and West Africa.
Female home ranges are smaller than male home ranges. In general, caracal home ranges are larger in arid environments compared to areas with more water.
The caracal's gestation period is approximately two and a half months, and litters are usually between one and four kittens. The kittens are weaned by 10 weeks, but remain with the mother for up to a year. Caracals reach sexual maturity between 12 and 16 months.
Like most carnivorous cats, the caracal has a very broad diet. It mainly consumes small mammals and birds. It also preys upon the young of larger mammals, such as the impala and antelope. Caracals sometimes eat lizards, snakes and insects. The caracal preys on a variety of mammals, but most typically rodents, hares, hyraxes, and small antelope. Although caracals are considered a small cat, they do not hesitate to kill larger prey, such as an adult springbok or juvenile kudu, when the opportunity arises. Hunting usually occurs at night and the caracal kills by biting the neck and suffocating its prey. The caracal has also been known to scavenge when necessary.
The caracal is often considered a nuisance to local crop and livestock owners because it does not shy away from livestock predation, and is frequently killed because of this. The caracal is also hunted for its skin and meat, which some bush tribes consider a delicacy. Habitat destruction, from agriculture and desertification, is also a threat in central, west, north, and northeast Africa. The caracal is most abundant in Namibia and South Africa, although research indicates they are declining through parts of Namibia. Caracals are considered rare throughout most of their range . In Africa, the caracal is listed under CITES Appendix II and Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Hunting caracals is forbidden in sub-Saharan Africa, but only in about half of the caracal's range, as it is not protected in Namibia and South Africa. Here, the caracal is considered a problem animal, and is so abundant that landowners are permitted to kill without restriction. Like many cats, the caracal is not often seen. However, the caracal seems to be doing well even in nations where hunting it is permitted. Humans are the primary threat to caracals, but leopards are known to kill them. Overall, caracal conservation is not currently an issue, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, although its population as well as its habitat has decreased in specific areas. In the future, the conservation status of the caracal may worsen as a result of continued habitat destruction, fragmentation and desertification.
Caracals were historically trained to hunt birds in Iran and India. Sometimes, a caracal was put into a stadium along with a flock of pigeons. People would make bets on how many pigeons the caracal would kill during a set time span. A well-trained caracal could take down up to twelve pigeons in one leap with its large paws and strong legs. This is where the expression "to put a cat amongst the pigeons" came from.
Caracals appear to have been religiously significant to the ancient Egyptians. Caracals were found in wall paintings, and sculptures of caracals and other cats guarded tombs. Some caracal bodies were embalmed.
Like cheetahs, caracals were used as a hunting tool. Caracals were trained to hunt small game and birds for Indian royalty. Today, many people consider the caracal an "exotic" pet, although they do not behave domestically in captivity. Despite its wild attitude, attempts have been made to crossbreed caracals with domestic cats to produce a "domestic" caracal.
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