MammalMAP: the black footed cat
The black footed cat or Felis nigripes is one of the world’s smallest cats. These cats get their name from the colour of the underparts of their paws – which is black. The colour of its fur varies from cinnamon-buff to tawny with black or brown spots that merges to form rings on its legs, neck, and tail.
The females weigh on average 1.3 kgs while its male counterpart weighs in at 1.9 kgs. Wow, that’s small! It would take three black footed cats to weigh the same as an average African wildcat.
These kitties are opportunistic feeders – chowing on a variety of 40 vertebrate species. Quite adept at killing prey bigger than they are, these cats are capable of jumping up 1.4 m high to catch birds in flight. Their hunting success is quite impressive – they can catch one vertebrate every 50 minutes.
Black footed cats are generally anti-social. Females and males only associate for mating – which is only 5 – 10 hours. Females give birth to a litter of two kittens in an underground. The kittens are born blind but quickly develop motor skills and venture out the den at three weeks. At this age, the mother will often bring back live prey for the kittens to practice on. By six weeks, the kittens are capable of killing their own prey. Even after they are independent, the kittens may stay within their mother’s territory.
So where do we find these fabled felines? These cats are endemic to southern Africa. They primarily inhabit the dry, open savannahs, grasslands and Karoo semi deserts of South Africa and Namibia. These animals are threatened by habitat fragmentation as the result of grazing, agriculture and the use of poisons as a means of pest control.
Black-footed cats are found in the savannas and grasslands of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, as well as small parts of Angola, Zimbabwe, and possible Lesotho.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
Black-footed cats are the smallest of African Felis species. The body is covered with light brown hair with black to dark brown spots covering the back, sides, and stomach. Dark brown stripes similar to the spots appear on the cheeks, front legs, haunches, and tail. In addition, the tip of the tail is solid black (about twice the thickness as the stripes around the tail). The tail averages 150 to 200 mm, about half the body length. The bottom of the feet, which are often visible due to their digitigrade style of walking, are black, giving this species its common name. Males are slightly larger than females, averaging 1.93 kg, compared to 1.3 kg for females.
Range mass: 1 to 2.75 kg.
Range length: 337 to 500 mm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Black-footed cats inhabit dry grasslands, savannas, and deserts of southern Africa. The terrain they inhabit averages 100 to 500 mm of rainfall each year. They create dens in burrows or abandoned termite mounds and also shelter temporarily in dense thickets.
Range elevation: 0 to 2000 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; scrub forest
Habitat and Ecology
During a 6-year field study on the game farm in central South Africa, 1725 prey items were observed consumed by 17 free-ranging habituated black-footed cats. Average prey size was 24.1 g. Eight males fed on significantly larger prey (27.9 g) than 9 females (20.8 g). Fifty-four prey species were classified by their average mass into 8 different size classes, 3 for mammals, 3 for birds, 1 for amphibians/reptiles, and 1 for invertebrates. Small mammals (5-40 g) constituted the most important prey class (39%) of total prey biomass followed by larger mammals (> 100 g; 17%) and small birds ( 100 g) were mainly consumed. Small rodents like the large-eared mouse (Malacothrix typica), captured 595 times by both sexes, were particularly important during the reproductive season for females with kittens. Male black-footed cats showed less variation between prey size classes consumed among climatic seasons. This sex-specific difference in prey size consumption may help to reduce intra-specific competition (Sliwa 2006). In terms of interspecific competition, Sliwa et al. (2007) found that black-footed cats captured smaller prey on average than African wildcats, although both captured approximately the same number (12-13) of prey species per night.
Black-footed cats are solitary, except for females with dependent kittens, and during mating. Males have larger annual home ranges (20.7 km²; n=5) than females (10.0 km², n=7) (Sliwa 2004). Adults travel an average of 8.42+/- 2.09 km per night - more distance than the African wildcat (5.1 +/- 3.35 km per night) depite their smaller size, although some wildcats travelled very far (17.37 per km longest distance, as opposed to the black-footed at's 14.61 km) (Sliwa et al. 2007).
Male ranges overlap those of 1-4 females. Intra-sexual overlap varies from 12.9% for three males to 40.4% for five females. Home-range size is likely to vary between regions according to resources available to the individuals (Sliwa 2004). Kittens are independent after 3-4 months, but remain within the range of their mother for extended periods (Sliwa 2008).
The black-footed cat is one of the world's smallest cats, with females weighing an average of 1.3 kg and males larger at 1.93 kg (Sliwa 2008). The conspecific and more common African wildcat is considerably larger (females - 3.9 kg; males - 5.1 kg) (Sliwa et al. 2007).
Black-footed cats eat a wide variety of small animals, 98% of which are mammals and birds, mammals making up 72% and birds 26% of the diet. Animals weighing less than 40 g made up more than half of their prey base. Larger animals were mainly caught during winter, when smaller prey was unavailable. These larger animals may be cached for later use. The remaining 2% of prey items are made up of small amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles
Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
Black-footed cats are dominant predators of small mammals and birds in areas they inhabit.
Little is known about predation on this species. Unlike many felids, human predation on these cats is relatively rare. Their nocturnal habits, secretive behavior, and spotted coats make it difficult to observe them.
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
Because they are solitary, black-footed cats mostly communicate via scent marking, mainly urine-spraying. Urine-spraying has two main uses; both as advertisement for females to males pre-mating and for territory delineation. Mother and their young communicate vocally. Females scent mark most during times when they are sexually receptive, so it is thought to be mainly to attract male mates.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones ; scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Little is known about life expectancy in black-Footed cats, but they are thought to live up to 13 years, up to 15.6 years in captivity.
Status: wild: 13 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 15.6 (high) years.
Status: wild: 12.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Black-footed cats are likely polygynous, as male territories overlap with up to 5 female ranges, while female ranges usually only overlap with one male home range. Prior to mating, female urine-spraying increases to advertise her readiness to the local male. Breeding is the only time that black-footed cats are found associating with each other, except for females and their kittens. Males and females only associate for 5 to 10 hours for mating.
Mating System: polygynous
Black-footed cats mate in the fall, in August and September, giving birth to young in November to December in an underground den. Females may have multiple litters in a year and young have been recorded in dens as late as February. Females average 1 to 3 offspring in each litter (1 to 2 is more typical). Gestation takes 59 to 68 days and females give birth to young from 60 to 88 grams in weight. Young begin to venture out of their den at 3 weeks old and are fully weaned at about 6 weeks old, when they can begin to catch their own prey. Females become mature at 14 to 21 months old.
Breeding interval: Black-footed cats can breed up to 4 times yearly, although fewer litters are more common.
Breeding season: Black-footed cats can breed from the spring to the fall. Mating is most common in the spring.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 3.
Average number of offspring: 1.71.
Range gestation period: 59 to 68 days.
Average gestation period: 66 days.
Range weaning age: 30 to 35 days.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 14 to 21 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 14.8 months.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 14.5 months.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 72.4 g.
Average number of offspring: 2.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 434 days.
Female black-footed cats provide all post-copulation investment in offspring. Throughout gestation and lactation, females invest heavily in their young. Starting at about 3 weeks old, females begin to bring back live prey for their offspring to practice catching prey with. During this time females bring back as much as 50% of their catches in a night. Young may inherit territory from their mother.
Parental Investment: precocial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); inherits maternal/paternal territory
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Felis nigripes
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
Black-footed cat populations are decreasing due to habitat degradation, threats from hunters, and poisonous baits set for other predators. It is illegal to hunt black-footed cats in Botswana and South Africa. Their range includes several national parks and other wilderness areas, including Addo Elephant National Park, Karoo National Park, Makgadikgadi Pans, and Mountain Zebra National Park. Black-footed cats seem to be more rare than other small, African felids and populations seem to be fragmented. There is little known about their natural history.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Date Listed: 06/14/1976
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Felis nigripes , see its USFWS Species Profile
Recommended conservation measures include more fine scale distributional studies particularly in Namibia and Botwana, as well as a second ecological study in a different habitat than Sliwa (2004), preferably in areas of lower rainfall more typical of the current predicted range (A. Sliwa pers. comm. 2007).
The species is recorded from several protected areas, including Karoo National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park, and Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa, and Makgadikgadi Pans (Botswana). To date, there are no confirmed records for the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana/South Africa) or Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana) (A. Sliwa pers. comm. 2007).
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no adverse effects of black-footed cats on humans, although they may bite in self-defense, such as when harassed. Their prey are small and do not include human livestock.
Black-footed cats are important predators of small rodents, which can be crop or household pests or carry diseases.
Positive Impacts: controls pest population
The black-footed cat, also called small-spotted cat (Felis nigripes), is the smallest African cat, and is endemic in the southwest arid zone of the southern African subregion. It is one of the lesser-studied African carnivores, and is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN since 2002.
The black-footed cat is one of the smallest cat species. Adult resident males weigh on average 1.9 kg (4.2 lb) and a maximum of 2.45 kg (5.4 lb). Adult resident females weigh on average 1.3 kg (2.9 lb) and a maximum of 1.65 kg (3.6 lb). Males reach a head-to-body length of 36.7 to 43.3 cm (14.4 to 17.0 in) with tails 16.4 to 19.8 cm (6.5 to 7.8 in) long. Females are smaller with a maximum head-to-body-length of 36.9 cm (14.5 in) and tails 12.6 to 17.0 cm (5.0 to 6.7 in) long. The shoulder height is about 25 cm (9.8 in).
Only the pads and underparts of its feet are black, which gives the black-footed cat its name. The fur varies in colour from cinnamon-buff to tawny, and is patterned with black or brown spots that merge to form rings on the legs, neck, and tail. The skin, however, is unpigmented pink, unlike that of other spotted cats. The backs of the rounded ears are the same color as the background coat color. The eyes are very large.
Distribution and habitat
The black-footed cat is endemic to southern Africa, and primarily found in South Africa, Namibia, marginally into Zimbabwe, and likely in extreme southern Angola. Only historical but no recent records exist in Botswana. It lives in dry, open savanna, grassland and karoo semidesert with shrub and tree cover at altitudes up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft), but not in the driest and sandiest parts of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts.
Distribution of subspecies
Two subspecies with different ranges are recognized:
- F. n. nigripes — Botswana, Namibia, and in the northern parts of South Africa;
- F. n. thomasi — southeastern South Africa
According to Shortridge's description, F. n. nigripes is smaller and paler than F. n. thomasi, but since specimens with characteristics of both assumed subspecies are found close to Kimberley in central South Africa, the existence of subspecies is questioned, as no geographical or ecological barriers to their ranges occur.
Ecology and behavior
Black-footed cats are solitary and strictly nocturnal, thus rarely seen. They spend the day resting in dense cover, in unoccupied burrows of springhares, porcupines, and aardvarks, or in hollow termite mounds. They emerge to hunt after sunset.
They are typically found in dry, open habitat with some degree of vegetation cover. Apparently, they get all the moisture they need from their prey, but will drink water when available.
Unlike most other cats, black-footed cats are poor climbers, and will generally ignore tree branches. Their stocky bodies and short tails are not conducive to tree-climbing. They dig vigorously in the sand to extend or modify burrows for shelter.
Black-footed cats are highly unsociable animals that seek refuge at the slightest disturbance. When cornered, they are known to defend themselves fiercely. Due to this habit and their courage, they are called miershooptier (anthill tiger in Afrikaans) in parts of the South African karoo, although they rarely use termite mounds for cover or for bearing their young. A San legend claims that a black-footed cat can kill a giraffe by piercing its jugular. This exaggeration is intended to emphasize the bravery and tenacity of the animal.
Within one year, a female covers an average range of 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi), a resident male 22 km2 (8.5 sq mi). The range of an adult male overlaps the ranges of one to four females. On average, the animal travels 8 km (5.0 mi) per night in search of prey. The cats use scent marking throughout their ranges, with males spraying urine up to 12 times an hour. Other forms of scent marking include rubbing objects, raking with claws, and depositing faeces in visible locations. Their calls are louder than those of other cats of their size, presumably to allow them to call over relatively large distances. However, when close to each other, they use quieter purrs or gurgles, or hiss and growl if threatened.
Diet and hunting
Due to their small size, black-footed cats hunt mainly small prey species, such as rodents and small birds, but may also take the white-quilled bustard and the Cape hare, the latter heavier than itself. Insects and spiders provide less than 1% of the prey mass consumed. They are unusually active hunters, killing up to 14 small animals in a night. Their energy requirements are very high, with about 250 g (9 oz) of prey per night consumed, which is about a sixth of its average body weight.
Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking, rather than ambush, using the cover of darkness and all available traces of cover to approach their prey before the final pounce. They have been observed to hunt by moving swiftly to flush prey from cover, but also to slowly stalk through tufts of vegetation. Less commonly, they wait outside rodent burrows, often with their eyes closed, but remaining alert for the slightest sound. In common with the big cats, but unlike most other small species, black-footed cats have been observed to hide some of their captured prey for later feeding, rather than consuming it immediately.
Reproduction and lifecycle
Black-footed cats have lived for 10 years in captivity. Females reach sexual maturity after 8 to 12 months. They come into estrus for only one or two days at a time, and are receptive to mating for a few hours, requiring males to locate them quickly. Copulation occurs frequently during this period. Gestation lasts from 63 to 68 days. A litter consists usually of two kittens, but may vary from one to four young. Kittens weigh 60 to 84 g (2.1 to 3.0 oz) at birth. They are born blind and relatively helpless, although they are able to crawl about after just a few hours. They are able to walk within two weeks, begin taking solid food after about a month, and are fully weaned by two months of age.
Females may have up to two litters during the spring, summer, and autumn. They rear their kittens in a burrow, moving them to new locations regularly after the first week. In general, kittens develop more rapidly than other similarly sized cats, quickly adapting them to a relatively hostile environment. They become independent by five months of age, but may remain within their mother's range.
In situ research
The Black-footed Cat Working Group carries out a research project at Benfontein Nature Reserve and Nuwejaarsfontein Farm in central South Africa, where seven black-footed cats have been radio-collared. This project is part of a multidisciplinary effort to study the distribution, ecology, health, and reproduction of black-footed cats over an extended period. In November 2012, this project was extended to Biesiesfontein Farm located in the Northern Cape Province.
Wuppertal Zoo acquired black-footed cats as long ago as 1957, and succeeded in breeding them in 1963. In 1993, the European Endangered Species Programme was formed to coordinate which animals are best suited for pairing to maintain genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding. The International Studbook for the black-footed cat is kept in the German Wuppertal Zoo. As of July 2011, detailed records exist for a total of 726 captive cats since 1964; worldwide, 74 individuals were kept in 23 institutions in Germany, United Arab Emirates, USA, UK, and South Africa.
In February 2011, a female kept at the Audubon Nature Institute gave birth to two male kittens. This birth was significant in that the kittens are the first of their species to be born as a result of in vitro fertilization using frozen and thawed sperm and frozen and thawed embryos. In 2003, the sperm was collected from a male and then frozen. At the Audubon Nature Institute, it was later combined with an egg from a female, creating embryos in March 2005. Those embryos were frozen for almost six years before being thawed and transferred to a surrogate female in December 2010, which carried the embryos to term, resulting in the birth of the two kittens. Scientists hope this will provide a means to increase the species numbers, as well as introduce greater genetic variation into the small population.
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