This species is found in three distinct areas of the world: Sahara Desert of Africa in the countries of Algeria, Niger and Morocco; throughout the Arabian Peninsula; and parts of Central Asia including Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
In north Africa, Sliwa (in press) has summarized what is known of its distribution: the Sand Cat occurs marginally in western Morocco, including former Sahara Occidental, Algeria, and from the Sinai peninsula to the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt. Although there have been sightings, no specimens have been collected from Tunisia, Libya, or in Egypt, west of the Nile River. There are sight records from Mali (including a recent night time observation in the Lake Faguibine area: O. Hamerlynck pers. comm. 2011) and both specimens and sightings in Niger. In Mauritania, it is supposed to occur in the Adrar mountains and Majabat al Koubra. Thought to be present, but currently no specimens available, in Senegal and Chad, where spoor have been found, and also Sudan.
In Asia, there is a recent new country distribution record for Syria, around the area of Palmyra (Serra et al. in press). It is not known if the small populations of Sand Cats in Pakistan's Balochistan province are connected to the central Asian population via Afghanistan (Habibi 2004). It has been recorded from the desert regions west of the Caspian Sea (in northern Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), but it is not known if the distribution is or was continuous to the Arabian peninsula (Hemmer et al. 1976, Nowell and Jackson 1996, Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
Distribution in Egypt
Narrow (Sinai and southern Eastern Desert).
Felis margarita is the size of a domestic cat and the smallest of all wild cats, weighing between 2.1-3.4 kg (males) and 1.4-3.1 kg (females). Their most distinctive characteristic is their large ear pinnae, which protect the ears from blowing sand. The most highly developed senses of this species are hearing and smelling. Being nocturnal animals, they rely on sensitive hearing to locate prey moving below the surface of the ground. The tympanic meatus and auditory bulla are relatively much larger in this species than in any other felids. Thick fur of medium length covers the body and protects it from the harsh nighttime temperatures. Coat colors range from pale yellow to grey. They have dark brown to black stripes covering the tail and limbs and the eyes are accented with reddish-orange stripes. The chest and chin are always white. Another distinguishing characteristic of the species is the wiry, black fur that covers the pads of their feet, protecting them from the desert's hot surfaces. The hair aids in increasing the maneuverability through the sand. Researchers find this characteristic troublesome because it makes their footprints almost invisible.
Range mass: 1.4 to 3.4 kg.
Range length: 450 to 570 mm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Habitat and Ecology
Small rodents are their primary prey, with records from Africa including including Spiny Mice (Acomys spp), Jirds (Meriones spp), Gerbils (Gerbillus spp), and Jerboas (Jaculus spp. and Allactaga tetradactyla), but also young of Cape Hare (Lepus capensis). They have also been observed to hunt small birds like Greater Hoopoe Lark (Alaemon alaudipes), Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti), and consume reptiles such as Desert Monitor (Varanus griseus), Fringe-toed lizards (Acanthodactylus spp.), Sandfish (Scincus scincus), Short-fingered Gecko (Stenodactylus spp.), Horned and Sand vipers of the genus Cerastes, and insects (De Smet 1988, Abbadi 1993, Dragesco-Joffé 1993, Sliwa in press). Sand-dwelling rodents made up the majority (65–88%) of stomach contents from carcasses collected in Turkmenistan and Uzebekistan in the 1960s (Schaenberg 1974). In Arabia the sand cat's distribution coincides with that of Sand Skinks and Arabian toad-head lizards; both reptiles are thought to be an important source of food for the cat (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
They are capable of rapid digging to extract the latter prey items (Schauenberg 1974). Sand Cats may cover kills with sand and return later to feed. Independent of drinking water they are capable of satisfying their moisture requirements from their prey, but drink readily if it is available (Sliwa in press). They appear to be primarily nocturnal (Abbadi 1993, Nowell and Jackson 1996).
Sand Cats have been recorded to move long distances in a single night (5–10 km), and a radio telemetry study in Israel suggests large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 km² (Abbadi 1993). Annual ranges from the ongoing study in Saudi Arabia are larger, up to 40 km² (M. Strauss pers. comm. 2008).
Sand cats are mostly carnivorous and eat a variety of prey such as gerbils, sand voles, hares, spiders, reptiles, birds, insects and venomous snakes. This species are known to be “fearless snake hunters” that attack venomous vipers. They are considered opportunistic feeders that take what they can find in their barren habitat. Prey provide the sand cat with the fluids they need to live in places where there is little water.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods
Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates, Insectivore )
The sand cat is considered a rare species. As a result, very little research has been conducted on this species. As with any species, they play an ecological role in their habitats. The sand cat preys on animals such as rodents, reptiles and birds and therefore the disappearance of this species may lead to an increase in the prey species. Because the sand cat is rare, it is probably not a species that is crucial to its predators such as owls, jackals and snakes.
Predators of sand cats include of snakes, jackals and owls. In addition to natural predators, the sand cat is also threatened by humans in the form of poisoning and capturing for the illegal pet trade. Overall, the sand cat is the least threatened of wild cats.
- snakes (Serpentes)
- jackals (Canis)
- owls (Strigiformes)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
Bark-like sounds are used as mating calls to communicate between individuals. They allow individuals to locate one another over long distances.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
The sand cat is known to live 13 years in captivity, but they have a high juvenile mortality rate.
Status: captivity: 13 years.
Status: captivity: 13.9 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Sand cats are a solitary species and not much is known of their mating systems. It is believed that their hearing plays an important part in communication during the mating season.
Sand cats in captivity breed more than once a year. In the wild their reproductive seasons are dependent on location. In the deserts of the Sahara, the reproductive season begins in January and ends in April. In Turkmenistan, the season begins sometime in April. In Pakistan, the breeding season lasts from September to October. In part, the differences may be due to climate or availability of resources. The gestation period lasts, on average, 59-63 days. Sand cats give birth to between 1-8 kittens although 4-5 kittens are normal. Although sand cats are not sexually mature until 9-14 months, they are relatively independent at 6-8 months of age. Fast maturity may be an advantageous trait in such a hostile environment.
Breeding interval: once/year, but in captivity they can breed more than once annually
Breeding season: January-April (Sahara), April (Turkmenistan) & September- October (Pakistan)
Range number of offspring: 2 to 8.
Average number of offspring: 4.
Range gestation period: 59 to 63 days.
Range time to independence: 6 to 8 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 9 to 14 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 9 to 14 months.
Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 55.5 g.
Average number of offspring: 4.5.
No information is available at this time.
Parental Investment: altricial
Evolution and Systematics
Hairy pads or bristles on the feet of desert creatures help them move on loose sand by providing a braking mechanism as the feet push backwards.
"Soles equipped with bristles or hairy pads are also suitable for locomotion over loose sand. Many desert and steppe dwellers walk on such soft and comfortable soles; notable examples are the tarsiers, Tenebrionidae and Asilidae, the Eligmodontia mouse, the sand cat, and the fennec fox." (Tributsch 1984:73)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Felis margarita
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
The sand cat is not well studied. Because they live in such vast, desert locations, it is hard to track the true number of individuals. This species is listed as Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) according to the IUCN. Their major threats are habitat loss and degradation. Human induced desertification can affect this desert dwelling species and their prey. Appendix II means that the species is not currently threatened by extinction, but could be if not monitored. They are listed as “near threatened” according to the IUCN World Conservation Union. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the subspecies Felis margarita scheffeli from Pakistan is listed as endangered.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix ii
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2008Near Threatened(IUCN 2008)
- 2008Near Threatened
- 2002Near Threatened
- 1996Lower Risk/least concern(Baillie and Groombridge 1996)
- 1994Insufficiently Known(Groombridge 1994)
Status in Egypt
Other localized threats include the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition and through predation and disease transmission (Nowell and Jackson 1996). They also may be killed in traps laid out by inhabitants of oases targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens (De Smet 1989; Dragesco-Joffé 1993). There are occasional reports of animals shot in south-east Arabia (M. Strauss pers. comm.).
There is a need for more fine-scale distribution studies and estimates of home range and density.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Perhaps because of its relatively small numbers, this species has not had negative impacts upon humans.
Negative Impacts: causes or carries domestic animal disease
The sand cat is part of the illegal pet trade. Researchers have sparked an interest in further studies of this species.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; research and education
The sand cat (Felis margarita), also known as the sand dune cat, is the only cat living foremost in true deserts. This small cat is widely distributed in the deserts of North Africa and Southwest and Central Asia. Since 2002, it has been listed as Near Threatened by IUCN because the population is considered fragmented and small with a declining trend.
Sand cats are found in both sandy and stony desert, living in areas far from water. Having thickly furred feet, they are well adapted to the extremes of a desert environment and tolerant of extremely hot and cold temperatures.
Victor Loche first described the sand cat in 1858 from a specimen found in the Sahara. He proposed to name the species in recognition of Jean Auguste Margueritte who headed the expedition into the Sahara.
The sand cat is a small, stocky cat with short legs and a relatively long tail. The fur is of a pale sandy ocherous color. Markings vary between individuals: some have neither spots nor stripes, some are faintly spotted, some have both spots and stripes. There are blackish bars on the limbs, and the tail has a black tip with two or three dark rings alternating with buff bands. In northern regions, the sand cat's winter coat is very long and thick, with hairs reaching up to 2 in (5.1 cm) in length. The lower and upper lips, chin, throat and belly are white. The ears are tawny brown at the base with a black tip. The lower part of the face is whitish, and a faint reddish line runs from the outer corner of each eye, angling down across the cheek. The large and greenish yellow eyes are surrounded by a white ring, and the naked tip of the nose is black. 
Its head and body length ranges from 39 to 52 cm (15 to 20 in), with a 23.2 to 31 cm (9.1 to 12.2 in) long tail. It weighs from 1.35 to 3.2 kg (3.0 to 7.1 lb). The auditory bullae and the passages from the external ears to the ear drums are greatly enlarged relative to other small felids. The undersides of the paws are protected from extreme temperatures by a thick covering of fur. The head is broad. The pinna of the ears is triangular, and the ear canal is very wide, giving the cat an enhanced sense of hearing. The ears are large and more pointed than in the manul. They are set low, giving a broad flat appearance to the head. This trait may protect the inner ears from wind-blown sand and aid detection of movements of subterranean prey. A highly developed hearing capacity is important for locating prey, which is not only sparsely distributed in arid environments, but also found underground.
The sand cat’s claws on the forelimbs are short and very sharp, the ones on the hind feet are small and blunt. The long hairs growing between its toes create a cushion of fur over the foot pads, helping to insulate them while moving over hot sand. This feature makes the cat's tracks obscure and difficult to identify and follow.
Distribution and habitat
Sand cats are found primarily in both sandy and stony desert and have a wide but apparently disjunct distribution through the deserts of northern Africa and southwest and central Asia. They prefer flat or undulating terrain with sparse vegetation, avoiding bare sand dunes, where there is relatively little food. They can survive in temperatures ranging from −5 °C (23 °F) to 52 °C (126 °F), retreating into burrows during extreme conditions. Although they will drink when water is available, they are able to survive for months on the water in their food.
In North Africa, sand cats occur marginally in western Morocco, including former Sahara Occidental, in Algeria, and from the rocky deserts of eastern Egypt to the Sinai peninsula. Sightings have been reported from Tunisia, Libya, Mali and Niger. In Mauritania, they probably occur in the Adrar mountains and the Majabat al Koubra. Spoor have been found in Senegal, Chad, and Sudan.
In the early 1990s, several sand cats were radio-collared in southern Israel. In the late 1990s, they were also recorded in Jordan. Sand cats were sighted and camera trapped in a protected area near Palmyra in Syria in 2000 and 2001. In 2012, sand cats were recorded for the first time in Iraq, in the Al Najaf desert.
In central Asia, sand cats occur east of the Caspian sea throughout the Karakum Desert from the Ustyurt Plateau in the northwest to the Kopet Dag Mountains in the south extending through the Kyzylkum Desert to the Syr Darya River and the northern border to Afghanistan.
Distribution of subspecies
Subsequent to Loche’s first description of a sand cat from Algeria, several subspecies have been described, of which the following are recognized today:
- Felis margarita margarita (Loche 1858) − ranges from Algeria southwards to Asben in northern Nigeria, Sinai and Arabia;
- Felis margarita thinobius (Ognev 1926) − ranges from the Karakum Desert to the southeast of Türkmenbaşy, Turkmenistan and the southern Kyzylkum desert to the west of Bukhara in Uzbekistan and in the Transcaspian area to Repetek;
- Felis margarita scheffeli (Hemmer, 1974) − lives in the Nushki desert of Pakistan;
- Felis margarita harrisoni (Hemmer, Grubb and Groves, 1976) − ranges in the Arabian Peninsula.
Pocock also described two sand cat skins from the Algerian Sahara and the former French Sudan. The proposed subspecies F. m. meinertzhageni and F. m. aïrensis are not recognized as valid subspecies.
Ecology and behavior
Sand cats live solitary lives outside of the mating season. They communicate using scent and claw marks on objects in their range and by urine spraying. They do not leave their feces in exposed locations as many other felids do. They make vocalizations similar to domestic cats but also make loud, high-pitched barking sounds, especially when seeking a mate. Hearing plays an important role in intraspecific communication; sand cats make a short, rasping bark in connection with mating activity.
They inhabit burrows and use either abandoned fox or porcupine burrows or enlarge those dug by gerbils or other rodents. The burrow is about 1.5 m (4.9 ft) deep and dug in slightly slanting ground with a single entrance, but also two or three were observed. In winter, they stay in the sun during the day, but during the hot season, they are crepuscular and nocturnal.
Their way of moving is distinct: with belly to the ground, they move at a fast run punctuated with occasional leaps. They are capable of sudden bursts of speed and can sprint at speeds of 30 to 40 km (19 to 25 mi) per hour. During a radio telemetry study in Israel, sand cats were found to have large home ranges, with one male using an area of 16 km2 (6.2 sq mi). They have been recorded to move long distances of 5–10 km (3.1–6.2 mi) in a single night and were generally active throughout the night, hunting and travelling an average of 5.4 km (3.4 mi). Before retiring below ground at dawn, the observed cats adopted the same lookout position at the mouth of the burrow. Different cats used burrows interchangeably and did not change burrows during the day.
Small rodents are their primary prey, with records from Africa including spiny mice, jirds, gerbils, jerboas, and young of cape hare. They have also been observed to hunt small birds like Greater Hoopoe Lark, Desert Lark, and consume reptiles such as Desert Monitor, Fringe-toed lizards, sandfish, short-fingered gecko, horned and sand vipers, and insects. They are capable of satisfying their moisture requirements from their prey but drink readily if water is available. They can dig rapidly to extract their prey from the ground and bury prey remains in the sand for later consumption.
Reproduction and life cycle
Oestrus in sand cats lasts from five to six days and is accompanied by calling and increased scent marking. An average litter of three kittens is born after 59 to 66 days, typically around April or May, although in some areas, sand cats may give birth to two litters per year. The kittens weigh 39 to 80 grams (1.4 to 2.8 oz) at birth, with spotted pale yellow or reddish fur. They grow relatively rapidly, reaching three quarters of the adult size within five months of birth. Sand cats are fully independent by the end of their first year and reach sexual maturity not long after.
Of 228 sand cats born in zoos globally to the year 2007, only 61% lived to day 30. They died primarily due to maternal neglect by first-time mothers. They can live up to 13 years in captivity. The life expectancy of sand cats in the wild has not been documented.
Habitat degradation is the major threat to the sand cat. Vulnerable arid ecosystems are being rapidly degraded by human settlement and activity, especially livestock grazing. The sand cat's small-mammal prey-base depends on having adequate vegetation, which may experience large fluctuations due to drought or declines due to desertification and loss of natural vegetation. They also may be killed in traps laid out by inhabitants of oases targeting foxes and jackals or in retaliation for killing their chickens. There are occasional reports of animals shot in southeast Arabia. Other localized threats include the introduction of feral and domestic dogs and cats, creating direct competition and through predation and disease transmission.
Felis margarita is listed on CITES Appendix II. Hunting is prohibited in Algeria, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Niger, Pakistan and Tunisia. No legal protection exists in Egypt, Mali, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates.
The Jerusalem Biblical Zoo started a sand cat reintroduction project in Israel's Arava Desert. Several captive-born individuals from the zoo's population were kept in an acclimatization enclosure but did not survive subsequent release into the wild.
Captive sand cats are highly sensitive to respiratory diseases and infection of the upper respiratory tract. This is the main cause of death in adults. The most common disease is infectious rhinotracheitis. With sand cats being very susceptible to respiratory infections, they have to be kept in very arid enclosures where humidity and temperature do not fluctuate.
As of July 2009, the global captive population comprised 200 individuals in 45 institutions. As of May 2010, 29 sand cats were kept in 12 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited institutions participating in the Species Survival Plan. In January 2010, the Al Ain Zoo announced the first success of an in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedure on sand cats, resulting in the birth of two kittens at its facilities. In July 2012, four sand cat kittens were born at the Ramat Gan Zoo as part of the European Endangered Species Programme.
- Wozencraft, W. C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D. E.; Reeder, D. M. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
- Mallon, D. P., Sliwa, A., Strauss, M. (2011). "Felis margarita". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (1996). Sand Cat Felis margarita. in: Wild Cats. Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
- Loche, V. (1858). Description d'une nouvelle espèce de Chat par M. le capitaine Loche. Revue et Magasin de Zoologie Pure et Appliquée, Series 2 vol X: 49–50.
- Osborn, D. and Helmy, I. (1980). The contemporary land mammals of Egypt (including Sinai). Fieldiana Zoology, New Series No. 5: 444–447
- Geptner, V. G., Sludskii, A. A. (1972). Mlekopitaiuščie Sovetskogo Soiuza. Vysšaia Škola, Moskva. (In Russian; English translation: Heptner, V. G., Sludskii, A. A., Komarov, A., Komorov, N.; Hoffmann, R. S. (1992). Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol II (2): Carnivora (Hyaenas and Cats). Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the National Science Foundation, Washington D.C.)
- Sunquist, M.; Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 67–74. ISBN 0-226-77999-8.
- Schauenberg, P. (1974). Données nouvelles sur le Chat des sables Felis margarita Loche, 1858. [New data on the sandcat Felis margarita Loche, 1858.] Revue Suisse De Zoologie 81(4): 949–969 (in French, with German and English summaries)
- Christiansen, P., Wroe, S. (2007). "Bite forces and evolutionary adaptations to feeding ecology in carnivores". Ecology. 88 (2): 347–358.
- Hemmer, H., Grubb, P. and C. P. Groves (1976). Notes on the sand cat, Felis margarita Loche 1958. Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde 41: 286–303.
- Abbadi, M. (1992). "Israel's elusive feline: sand cats". Cat News 18: 15–16.
- Bunaian, F., Mashaqbeh, S., Yousef, M., Buduri, A., Amr, Z. S. (1998). A new record of the Sand Cat, Felis margarita, from Jordan. Zoology in the Middle East 16 (1): 5–7.
- Serra, G., Abdallah, M. S. and Al Quaim, G. (2007). Occurrence of Ruppell's fox Vulpes rueppelli and Sand cat Felis margarita in Syria. Zoology in the Middle East 42: 99–101.
- Mohammad, K. M., Lahony, S. R., Al-Rammahi, H. M. (2013). First record of the Sand Cat, Felis margarita Loche, 1858 (Mammalia: Carnivora, Felidae), from Iraq. Zoology in the Middle East 59 (4): 358–359.
- Ellerman, J. R. and Morrison-Scott, T. C. S. (1966). Checklist of Palaearctic and Indian mammals 1758 to 1946. Second edition. British Museum of Natural History, London. Pp. 306–307.
- Hemmer, H. (1974). [Studies on the systematics and biology of the sand cat.] Zeitschrift des Kölner Zoo 17(1):11–20. (in German)
- Pocock, R. I. (1951). Catalogue of the genus Felis. British Museum (Natural History), London, 190 pp.
- Dragesco-Joffé, A. (1993). La Vie Sauvage au Sahara. [Wildlife in the Sahara]. Delachaux et Niestlé, Lausanne (Switzerland) and Paris (in French).
- Mellen, J. D. (1993). "A comparative analysis of scent marking, social and reproductive behavior in 20 species of small cats (Felis)". American Zoologist 33 (2): 151–166. doi:10.1093/icb/33.2.151.
- Sausman, K. (1997). "Sand cat a true desert species". International Zoo Yearbook 35: 78–81. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1090.1997.tb01193.x.
- Jerusalem Biblical Zoo (2010). Re-introduction – Sand cats. Jerusalem Biblical Zoo Animal Reintroductions
- Bray, S. (ed.) (2010).Sand Cat SSP. Felid TAG Times (May 2010): 3
- Gulf News (2010). Al Ain zoo has reason to purr after birth of two sand cats. gulfnews.com, 27 January 2010
- Krystian, M. (2012). Rare Sand Kittens Born in Israel After Years of Rumored Extinction The International Business Times TV, 15 August 2012
|External identifiers for Felis margarita|
|Encyclopedia of Life||328670|
|Also found in: Wikispecies|
|Wikispecies has information related to: Felis margarita|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Felis margarita.|
- Species portrait sand cat; IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group
- Sand Cats Website about sand cats
- Sand Cat Working Group