To zoo visitors in the U.S., sand cats are delicate and beautiful, their fur colored from buff to gray, their tail ringed with dark lines, and more bars across the tops of their cobby legs. Their eyes are lined in black, and ornamented with reddish bars that angle out and down across their cheeks. They are paler on the underside.
All this beauty is camouflage. Their soft fur, including the stiff black fur on the bottoms of their paws, insulates them from the desert heat, as well as from the shocking cold of the desert night. The black mucosa that lines their eyes absorbs light rather than allowing it to reflect into their eyes and spoil their vision. The subtle bars and shadings of their coat help them blend into the background.
They are protected as well by their status as the legendary companions of the Prophet Mohammed and his daughter. Though some believe them to steal chickens or other livestock, most would never harm this animal.
In addition, they are believed to kill deadly sand vipers. They stun them with a single blow to the head, and then finish them by biting the backs of their necks. This is the smallest of all the felines.
Sand cats are solitary, thinly spread across the desert. They live from the Sahara to Central Asia, and especially in the Arabian Peninsula. Each solitary cat maintains its own territory, which may be seven square miles or more.
There are six species of Felis margarita, the sand cat, not to be confused with the desert cat, Felis sylvestris lybica. The desert cat cannot tolerate the heat and drought of the sand cat’s territory. Sand cats never drink water, sustaining themselves with moisture they glean from their prey. They never approach watering holes, where other predators might take them.
Before they leave their burrows, they stand silently and inspect the terrain. Their huge sensitive ears let them hear sound miles away, and even sense noises underground.
Again, when they return, they stand and inspect their burrow before they enter. They use the burrows of other animals, sometimes enlarging them. The burrow will have a single entrance, and may be three meters long. It shelters the cat through the desert heat, until he comes out at night to hunt.
The male is larger than the female. He calls her with a short rasping bark. The female is in oestrus for five or six days. These secretive creatures are believed to find one another by scent, and perhaps by markings they leave as they patrol their territory. After they mate, the female will give birth alone, in about two months.
There may be two to four kittens, sometimes more. The tiny young have spotted pale fur. They are born blind; and open their eyes at about the fourteenth day. After five weeks, they are ready for solid food. At five months, they are about three quarters of adult size, and can survive alone. They reach maturity at ten to twelve months, and may live thirteen years.
Because it hides so well, and lives in such thinly settled terrain, we do not know much about this mysterious cat. No one knows how many there might be. Some biologists believe that the sand cat is not endangered, as so many of the cats are, but thrives, perfectly adapted, in the deserts of its range.
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Indian Tiger: Sand Cats