Sand cats rocketed to fame in 2017 when photos of the wee wild cats from a study conducted by Grégory Breton, managing director of Panthera France, took the Internet by storm.
Now the Panthera team is back with a new study, marking the most extensive research on the ecology of this species in the wild. The study, which appears in the Journal of Arid Environments, provides the largest dataset on the home range of sand cats ever recorded.
The findings from the years-long study, which Panthera conducted with scientists from the Rabat and Cologne Zoos, add important new information to the understanding of this little-known species.
After tracking 22 sand cats with VHF radio collars and intermittently following and observing them in southern Morocco between December 2015 and December 2019, they discovered that sand cat ranges are much more extensive than previously thought.
“Incredibly, they rival ranges of much larger cats like leopards and tigers, with one sand cat covering an area of up to 1,758 square kilometers (about 1,093 square miles) over 6.5 months,” explains Panthera. The researchers now believe that sand cats probably maintain the largest range of cats of their Felis genus, including black-footed cats and African wildcats.
Because the desert conditions were so extreme and the equipment somewhat limited—and the cats so elusive—the researchers had no shortage of challenges. But while the desert may seem harsh and desolate, Breton describes it as rich with life:
Of the 22 cats they tracked over the years, they were able to collect strong data for 10 of them. “We even managed to track one cat for over a year: a male that ventured far and wide. It is this behavior which we found so eye-opening; we discovered that sand cat home ranges are likely considerably larger than previously estimated,” says Breton
The study’s findings suggest that these charismatic carnivores may not rely on defined home ranges, but rather, maintain a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, moving from one location to another based on influences like rainfall fluctuations. “If true, this type of movement in response to rainfall is previously unrecorded among wild cat species,” says Panthera.
Another interesting point from the study possibly hints at social dynamics. The authors note that all the sand cats they observed in the area, along with the ones they tagged, were in good external condition, showing no wounds, very few scars, and no broken teeth. From the study: “We hypothesize that the sand cats are tolerant of each other and likely non-territorial. Our understanding of their ecology remains however limited and their social organization and mating pattern almost unknown.”
While the presence of sand cats has been documented in 24 countries, from North Africa across the Middle East to southwest and central Asia, they have not been reported in four of the countries since 2000. With the findings from the new research, the authors note that the discovery of such large ranges for this cat has important conservation implications.
In the study, the authors explain that between 2008 and 2016, the sand cat was classified as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. However, it was upgraded to Least Concerned due to revised IUCN Red List Assessment instructions and based on previously small home-range size estimates. “But if the species home ranges are significantly larger as our study tends to demonstrate, population numbers could be lower than estimated,” write the authors.