Caturday Special: The Sand Cat, Felis margarita

The positively adorable sandcat sleeping. It looks like your regular old moggy with big ears but this is one finely honed desert predator. Those big ears and long whiskers to detect the faintest traces of movement, big night-vision eyes to lock-on to the prey and a body built for stealth, speed and a fight if needs be! What’s a biological marvel. I wanna hug it! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

I mean, for starters it’s named after a cocktail! Felis margarita! I don’t want to hear your roots, etymologies, histories and justifications. The linguistics mean nothing to me. I don’t care if it’s named after some French General or whatever.

I’ve been sobre, stone-cold sobre, not a sip of booze for 18 months, the hardest 18 months of my life. The most intoxicating things my body has taken in have been beautiful scenes from nature and images of this amazing, gorgeous cat.

It’s a cocktail for the senses, the sparkling gems for eyes, the dusty, pale straw floof and look at those ears on that little, blocky, floofy face – if this little beastie isn’t intoxicating, if this is not enough to keep even a former drunken waster, who would have had to visit a doctor for having too much blood in his alcohol stream, like me, on the wagon – I don’t know what, in nature, is.

OH. MY. WORD! Again – cute as a button but absolutely not intentionally. Every aspect of this animal that makes it ‘cute’ is an evolutionary adaptation to make it a perfect, small desert hunter! Those big eyes for spotting, targeting prey in the dark desert nights or – if it’s day-hunting – hunting sand-coloured prey in a sand-coloured desert. Those red lines, that look like eye make-up, around the eyes, may very well serve to reduce glare. Even the little nose, not-quite-pink, flecked with black – A pink nose would burn easily in the desert sun, the melanin, the pigment to make it black, serves as excellent protection. And those ears! They are radar! (Credit: Nathan Rupert CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You might be thinking “It’s a sand cat…it’s that colour…it clearly lives in the desert, why is that floofy!?” Well for one thing it gets cold in the desert at night. Some people still don’t realise that large stretches of open land that can overheat in a barrage of the sun’s radiation during the day also cool down significantly and quickly at night.

The difference can be 42°C! Temperatures can get down as low as -4°C! That’s on average, lows of -15°C have been recorded! You can go from scorching, equatorial summer heat to UK winter temperature in hours.

It comes down to this. Most deserts are made of fine grains of eroded rock or soil called ‘sand’ which is surprisingly good at heating up but not so great at holding the heat. It radiates a lot of that heat into the dry, desert air, heating up the air. But, if it’s not great at holding the heat, without direct sunlight on it, the sand doesn’t stay hot for very long. Likewise, the air in deserts tends to be dry. Water, humidity, in the air would hold the heat longer (as we see in temperatures in equatorial rainforests for example), but in the dry air of the desert the heat in the air disperses quickly, too.

Another schleepy sand cat. Behaviour to be expected. Cats tend to be very restful anyway, their hunts are high-energy affairs and expending too much energy when not hunting is wasteful. When you live in the desert, though? You’ll likely find a shaded den or hole to rest in and spend much of the day asleep, out of the heat. (Credit: Ltshears CC-BY-3.0)

Desert animals have to be adapted to these two extremes and, as much as you might not think it, a decent layer of gorgeous, pettable, fluffy cat floof is actually good for that. Think about what thermal insulation does. It doesn’t just keep heat in and cold out, but it does the reverse. Try it yourself, stick something cold in a thermos flask and see if it’s still cold a few hours later.

So for sandcats, for one thing, their colour – that pale straw colour is about as close as you can get to white without being completely reflective of the sun’s harsh radiation. Not only does it offer excellent camouflage in the dusty, yellow condition they live in but it doesn’t absorb the heat. Have you ever petted a black cat that’s been laying out in the sun and it feels like you could cook on it? Then done the same with a lighter coloured cat and wonder quite how the black cat hasn’t roasted alive!? Sand cats don’t have that problem.

They also have longer hairs on their paws, giving their pads extra protection against what can be a scalding, scorching desert surface.  

They’re only small, weighing around 1-4kg, shoulder height is about 25-35cm, head and body 40-50cm with a shortish tail around 25-30cm. We’re talking a tiny cat here. Not as small as the black-footed cat or rusty-spotted cat but not far off!

But that face! How can we not talk about that face! It is special for so many reasons.

One – Short muzzle, large, round forward facing eyes just equals ‘cute’ in the human brain. Think of many of the creatures we think of as ‘cute’ and they have those features. Think of animals we think of as ‘cute’ that don’t have those features and we’ve bred them, or adapted them to be cute in those ways, like with dog breeds or teddy-bears.

A sand cat in the Arabian desert. They are spread from the North African Sahara, across the Arabian peninsula, in countries like Israel, Jordan, down into Oman and into Central Asia in places like Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Human conflicts in many of these regions make monitoring sandcat numbers very difficult. (Credit: Ranjith-chemmad CC-BY-SA 4.0)

There are multiple anthropo-psychological theories why but they usually all come down to shit looking like babies and it bringing out a natural protective, parental instinct in us.

But this is a wild cat! This cat has not been bred to be cute, this wasn’t designed by a committee of cat-mad humans trying to make the ultimate cute cat. Everything from the oversized ears, the short snoot and the eye make-up is evolutionarily honed to make this an exceptional predator.

It has big eyes because, certainly during the summer, it’s crepuscular and nocturnal – it comes out during twilight hours and at night. It makes sense, it’s too fucking hot during the day to do anything. Winter time they have been known to wander about in the day. But they need those big eyes to spot prey.

The question: How much do I want this article broken up by photos of adorable sand cats? The answer: If it wasn’t, you know, my thing to write – I’d just have a gallery of sand cats! (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

The other thing to consider is what prey they are spotting. Sandy colour mice and rodents like gerboa, desert camouflaged reptiles, buff-colour birds. A lot of the stuff they hunt is as well camouflaged as they are and they need keen vision to spot it.

The eye markings are similar to those possessed by cheetah (although sand-cats don’t have the dark, stripe crosshairs pointing down the nose) but in cheetahs it is suggested the dark marks and lines around the eyes help reduce glare from the sun around the cat’s eyes.

But if you’ve been learning anything of comparative anatomy – the study of the differences in bodies and what they mean – from my articles so far you’ll be screaming at me “WHAT ABOUT THE EARS!?”

Look at them ears! Snapped in a motion-activated camera trap you can see many of the adaptations of this beautiful kitto. This is Felis margarita thinobia, the Asian sand cat. They tend to be slightly larger and, in some cases, have slightly longer fur (for dealing with lower temperatures at higher altitudes). But what a beautiful little creature. (Credit: Payman sazesh CC-BY-SA 3.0)

And if you are, you’re right! As important as the eyes are the sand cat has two adaptations that suggest eyesight might not be its foremost sense when it comes to hunting. For one, it has very long (up to 8cm!) white, whiskers. But it also has those massive pyramidal ears with large, wide ear canals, the openings through which sound can go.

The special bones used for hearing, and the ear drums themselves, of these cats are comparatively larger than those of other wild cats. Their hearing is significantly more acute than almost any other cat.

This beautiful, dusty feline doesn’t look for prey, it listens for it!

When they’re out on the hunt they slink, staying low to the ground, between their hairy paws and this low posture they’re near silent. They twitch their ears listening for the sounds of potential prey and once they clock it – BAM! – They can burst at speeds up to 40km/h! A short sprint, a pounce, hold it down, bite, game over. Small prey they may even eat whole!

It’s a small cat so most of its prey tends to be small birds, lizards and rodents. But in the desert you take what you can get, and you get what you’re bold enough to take! As well as opportunistically preying on invertebrates like beetles or crickets, there is also evidence of them hunting desert monitor lizards (that can grow up to 2m in length!) and MacQueen’s bustard, a bird around 65cm tall with a 1.5m wingspan that can weigh as much as a sandcat itself!

A lion of the Namib desert population. These lions are so exceptional some seek to have them classified as a sub-species. They survive, against all odds, in the harsh Namib desert. But that we consider their survival ‘against the odds’ demonstrates these lions are exceptional. Sandcats survive in the desert not through exception, but as a rule. (Credit: Linux_RT via Pixabay)

They’ve also been seen, you know, just taking on vipers, as you do!

For all that they may be small and, to our eyes at least, very cute, these are some ‘ard bastards! Their environment demands it as they are basically the only cat known to exist in solely desert environments. There is a population of lions in the Namib Desert – they’re pretty tough, but they do not represent most lions. Sand cats are the desert cats.

Their evolution is pretty interesting, too. They diverged from the rest of the felis lineage somewhere between 6.5-1 million years ago.

This is depending on which data from which DNA you use. I’ve explained before, animals technically have two genomes – two sets of genes – in their bodies; Their nuclear DNA which is ‘your’ genome, the one that codes for your body, eye colour, tongue-rolling, ability to make your wee smell funny when you eat asparagus, whether coriander tastes like soap or not; and your mitochondrial genome.

Sure to give anyone who studied A-level biology flashbacks, a diagram of a cell with the major organelles, the cell’s organs, labelled. The mitochondria are the pink, pill-shaped organelles. (Credit: AJC1 CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Mitochondria are tiny ‘organelles’, like a small organ within a cell, believed to have been derived from a symbiotic organism – some little creature that lives in, on or connected to another creature. They provide our cells with a much more efficient pathway for generating and processing ‘energy’ and thus they’re known as the ‘power stations of the cell’. One of the reasons we think that these are developed from a symbiotic relationship (specifically an endosymbiotic relationship, where the symbiotic organism is internal – that’s what ‘endo-‘means) is due to the fact that the mitochondria has its own genome sequence.

Little bit of biology lesson in your cat article, for you there. Either way they genetically diverged from the common Felis ancestor before the likes of the African wildcat, the European wildcat and the Chinese mountain cat. But a really interesting thing is the timing.

These cats are at least one million years old, meaning they have survived an awful lot of the glaciation events of the Pleistocene. Ice ages – to use the common parlance – caused a lot of changes, specifically in sea levels. We know, from both fossil and genetic evidence, that Asia is the home of the cat lineage, the Felidae, and they radiated from there. So it is likely that our little sandcat found its way to the deserts of Africa in a migration out of Asia due to low sea levels between Asia and Africa caused by glaciation.

Whilst many species were blossoming and struggling with the coming and going of glaciers and seas, the sand cat found a means to exploit it, increase its range and thrive.

It’s an excellent reminder that in the extremes of climate upheaval some species will find advantages. Our current climate crisis threatens many species, species that do not deserve to perish because humans fucked things up, but most significantly it threatens us, humans. We’re fucked, in all honesty, if we don’t do something.

Breaking up the serious with KITTEN TAX! This is a young sand cat – they are usually paler and extremely, almost achingly cute. (Credit: Charles Barilleaux CC-BY-2.0)

But in being so fucked we open up niches for exploitation by so many other species. This is heartening, at least to this bastard writing. Whilst many of us, myself included, have conscience enough to care about the state of the natural world – that natural world is cold and indifferent to us. Whatever havoc we cause will likely not be enough to stop the march of evolution and other species shall overrun ‘our’ habitats and environments, crumble ‘our’ buildings, and destroy everything we helped build to build a world of their own and piss and shit on our graves.

Maybe you think it’s grim, but I like that thought. It feels like, unless we do something to stop it, we get what we deserve.

We don’t own even our own bodies, the nutrients, the chemical compounds and elements all get recycled when we die. We borrow all of it. If we don’t borrow responsibly, nature ensures those debts are repaid.

A sand cat in a squished, low crouch position. They move like this whilst on alert, either in danger or hunting – keeping low helps them stay quiet whilst their big ears can pick up sounds, big eyes can see things and those whiskers can feel disturbances in the ground or air around them. (Credit: Valerie CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sorry, it’s been a tough time to be a wildlife enthusiast recently. You don’t want my brand of natural nihilism, you want cats.

Their migration means there are two populations, recognised as sub-species, of sand cat; Felis margarita margarita, the North African sand cat; and Felis margarita thinobia, found in West and Central Asia.

That there are two separate sub-species and looking at their distribution (particularly their fragmentation across Arabia) suggests the Sinai peninsula in Egypt may have acted as a barrier, preventing the Asian and African populations from mixing.

A map of sandcat distribution based upon IUCN data from 2016. You can see how their Saharan population is a lot more of a unified corridor, whilst the Arabian and Asian populations are potentially more fragmented. This fragmentation can cause problems as sandcats tend to be solitary, wide-ranging (walking 10+km on a night hunt) and disperse from one another. Breeding populations in the fragmented areas are in danger of inbreeding problems unless corridors can be established to allow gene flow. (Credit: BhagyaMani based on
Own work based on: Sliwa, A.; Ghadirian, T.; Appel, A.; Banfield, L.; Sher Shah, M. & Wacher, T. (2016). “Felis margarita“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Given enough time there is the possibility they could evolve into two entirely separate species. Then we’d have twice as much cat! Which is always good.

This article has been dense at times – if you read it all, thank you very much. The thing is, look at this little kitto! It’s fucking beautiful!

Species like this…This adorable little bastard. We don’t think of them in our boardrooms, our political halls or even, unless they’re thrown in front of our faces in some Attenborough documentary, in our living rooms or around our dining tables. They represent something of the natural world that our modern lives neglect.

I live for shit like this. The world’s an interesting place full of interesting things. These cats, that look like butter-wouldn’t-melt but that live in the fucking desert, treading across 80°C sand like it ain’t shit and eating venomous snakes because there’s fuck all else to eat – that’s the duality of nature. The brutal beauty.

Humans, often, do not accept that brutal beauty. Indeed it seems our lot, our mission of ‘civilisation’, has been to ‘tame’ the brutality and fetishise the beauty. In so doing we make problems of nature and natural behaviours; in doing that, we make problems for nature.

Sorry, are things getting too real? Let’s break up the deep thought with KITTEN TAX! And forget photos, we need KITTEN TAX VIDEO! (Credit: NatGeo Wild)

We’re wrong and have been for hundreds of thousands of years. We have a brain fine-tuned to believe we know what we are doing, but we are clueless. We have an ego fine-tuned to possess, to own, to believe we are responsible custodians when all we are is reckless borrowers.

The sandcat, meanwhile, lives in the harshest environment, eats what it can, efficiently processes precious resources like water and finds a way to exist harmoniously in the most hostile environment possible.

I think there are lessons to be learned there about how we can be more sandcat, and learn to live within our means and accept the hostility of the natural world for what it is rather than attempt to craft the whole landscape in our image and make it palatable to our needs.

This sandcat looks at you with scorn and judgement, like “Air conditioning? Mother fucker – the fuck is wrong wit’ you!? I’m furry and I live in the desert, how can you not survive 30 degrees without switching on a damn machine! Have some self-respect! God damn!” (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Survival – That’s the aim. It’s the closest anyone in biology has come to an objective ‘meaning’ for life. The sandcat does it in the harshest conditions. We try to change the conditions so we can survive. In so doing, we doom ourselves to perish. It’s unsustainable.

Be more sandcat.

You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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