|Scientific name||Otocolobus manul||Weight||2.5 to 4.5 kilograms (5.51 to 9.92 pounds)|
|Pronunciation||Pa-llas cat||Length||46 to 65 centimeters (18 to 26 inches)|
|Classification||Mammalia, Carnivora, & Felidae||Location||Central Asia (China, Mongolia, Russia, Iran, India, Afghanistan)|
The Pallas’s Cat
The typical house cat is a distant cousin to some of the biggest cats in the wild, such as lions and tigers.
But not all wild cats are giant, wild beasts.
Some species, like the Pallas’s cat, are roughly the same size as your favorite household pet.
The Pallas’s cat is one of the smallest cat species found in the wild.
Also known as manul or steppe cat, this cat species is native to Central Asia and is fully adapted to life in the cold, harsh steppe grasslands of Mongolia, China, Tibet, Iran, and 16 countries across the Asian continent.
Although it is quite abundant in its ecosystem, little is known about the Pallas’s cat because it manages to stay elusive within its native range.
In this article, we’ll profile the Pallas’s cat, one of the most fascinating cat species in the world.
Taxonomy and Classification
The Pallas’s cat is a wild cat species known by the scientific name Otocolobus manul.
It is also commonly referred to as the steppe cat or rock wildcat, with both nicknames referring to its typical habitat.
The manul is considered one of the oldest living cat species, with an evolution dating back several million years ago.
It belongs to the family Felidae, generally referred to as cats.
Within the felid family, the Pallas’s cat is related to other wild cat species in the subfamily Felinae, including pumas, leopards, cheetahs, and caracal.
All members of the subfamily Felinae are known for their inability to roar like the big cats.
Like other modern cats, the evolutionary history of the Pallas’s cat has been traced back to the Late Miocene when all modern felids evolved in Asia.
This was about 23 million years ago.
The closest living relative of the manul is the leopard cat.
Both cats diverged from the same common ancestor around 8.5 million years ago.
The Pallas’s cat is also related to the domestic cat Felis catus.
It was once classified in the same genus because some naturalists thought it was the ancestor of domestic Persian cats.
This was later found inaccurate, and the Pallas’s cat was placed in its own genus.
The Pallas’ cat looks like a stockier and long-haired version of regular domestic cats.
It is a small to medium-sized wild cat with a distinctive appearance.
The Pallas’s cat moves around with a stern, angry look on its face, which is why it is commonly referred to as the grumpiest cat in the world.
The cat’s stocky build is an adaptation to help it conserve body heat in its cold and arid habitat.
The Pallas’s cat has a flattened face with round ears set low on their heads.
This adaptation makes it possible for the cat to peer over rocks and other objects while keeping its ears hidden.
The color of the Pallas’s cat’s coat ranges from tan or gray to an almost orange color.
The color may change during certain seasons to allow them to blend better with the landscape.
Like many wild cat species, their coat is not a uniform color.
They can have four to seven dark stripes or rings on the tail, narrow black stripes on the back, and two black zig-zag lines on the cheeks.
The top of the head is usually light gray with distinct black spots.
The Pallas’s cat is roughly the same size as the domestic cat, but its stocky build makes it appear bigger than it really is.
The average length of this cat is typically about 46 to 65 centimeters (18 to 26 inches).
The tail is long, with an average length of about 21 to 31 centimeters (8.3 to 12.2 inches).
Pallas’s cats weigh around 2.5 to 4.5 kilograms (5 pounds 8 ounces to 9 pounds 15 ounces).
Instead of the vertical pupils, which are typical of small cats, the Pallas’s cat has rounded pupils that can contract to smaller disks during the day.
This is a rare trait in small cats (Felinae), shared with a few others like the puma and jaguarundi.
Habitat and Distribution
The Pallas’s cat has a wide range that covers up to 16 countries in Central Asia.
This cat’s range extends from the Caspian Sea all the way through to the Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
It is also found in Central Asia, Northern India, Mongolia, and parts of the Far East, such as Southern Russia.
The Pallas’s cat lives in a wide range of habitats in the region where it is present.
Typical habitats of this cat include grasslands, shrublands, deserts, and rocky areas.
The manul’s population is declining in the southwest portion of its range.
But in Central Asia, where it is still quite abundant, this cat is known to inhabit hilly areas and steppes.
The climate in the region where this wild cat is found ranges from semi-desert to extreme continental, characterized by low rainfall and wide-ranging temperatures.
Pallas’s cats demonstrate various adaptations that make it easier to survive in the harsh ecosystems where they’re typically found.
They have thick fur coats and undercoats, which provide insulation against the cold.
The furred tail can also be wrapped around their body to form a warm muff.
Their short, stocky limbs are also well adapted to climbing rocks and cliff surfaces with relative ease.
Behavior and Social Structure
Pallas’s cats are elusive predators.
They are solitary and live in relatively large home ranges, which they defend against other predators.
Like other big cats, they use scent markings to demarcate their territorial boundaries.
However, there can be some overlap in their home ranges, leading to occasional interactions between individuals.
The size of each cat’s territory may vary based on the availability of prey and the overall quality of the habitat.
Their territory can be as large as 3.5 to seven square miles, which is quite extensive for such small cats.
Although they can be active both at night and during the day, Pallas’s cats are mostly crepuscular.
This means they’re more active during the twilight hours of dawn and dusk.
This behavior helps them avoid the extreme temperatures of their environment and is also for hunting prey.
Pallas’s cats are rarely seen during the day because they seek shelter in rock crevices or burrows.
Diet and Feeding
Otocolobus manul is a carnivorous predator.
Its diet consists primarily of small rodents such as gerbils, hamsters, voles, pikas, and small marmots.
They may also prey on small lizards and birds depending on the food availability in their habitat.
They have been known to eat insects such as grasshoppers and beetles, too.
Pallas’s cats don’t chase prey.
Instead, they hunt by stalking or ambushing prey.
This cat may wait at the entrance of rodent burrows or stick its paws into the burrow to scoop out the prey.
Their stocky build and low-slung body make it easier to stay hidden from prey in the grassy or rocky terrain where they live.
Pallas’s cats also rely on their excellent camouflage when stalking prey.
Their color blends well with the rocks or grass so that they can pounce on unsuspecting prey given the opportunity.
The manul’s lower canine teeth are powerful, while their upper canines are short and massive, effective for grasping prey and piercing flesh.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Due to their elusive nature and tendency to live in remote habitats, very little is known about the reproductive behavior of the Pallas’s cats.
Mating is seasonal, usually between September and December each year.
However, the timing of their reproduction and the range of behaviors demonstrated may depend on the availability of food and other resources in their typically challenging environment.
During mating seasons, male and female Pallas’s cats find each other using scent markings and vocalizations that communicate their readiness to mate.
Males are typically more aggressive and territorial during mating season.
Females are usually in estrus for about 26 to 42 hours.
If mating takes place during this period, the female gets pregnant, with gestation typically lasting for about 66 to 75 days.
Female Pallas’s cats typically give birth to about two to six kittens in a litter.
Birth is typically between April and May each year.
Newborn manul kittens have fuzzy fur, and their eyes remain closed for about two weeks after birth.
Juveniles remain with their mothers for about five to six months in dens, caves, or burrows formerly occupied by Tarbagan marmots.
They typically start hunting independently when they’re about five months old and reach full adult sizes by six to seven months.
Pallas’s cats become sexually mature when they’re about ten months old.
They have been known to live for up to 12 years in captivity, but their mortality is higher in the wild.
Ecological Role and Interactions
The Pallas’s cat plays an important ecological role in the grasslands and steppe regions of Central Asia, where it resides.
Although it’s not an apex predator or keystone species that significantly shapes its environment, the presence of this small, wild cat in its ecosystem contributes to the overall balance of its ecosystem.
As a predator, the Pallas’s cat helps regulate the populations of its prey species, especially rodents like pikas and voles.
By keeping these prey populations in check, the Pallas’s cat indirectly influences the health of vegetation and plant communities of its habitat.
Excessive rodent populations can lead to overgrazing and damage to vegetation.
The steppe, where this cat lives, hosts some of the densest populations of small mammals on earth, and the presence of small cats like the Pallas’s cat helps to keep their population under check.
The Pallas’s cat’s role as a predator helps to remove these rodents and prevents imbalances.
As a small cat, the manul itself is prey to larger predators in its ecosystem.
Some of the most notable natural predators of this cat include large eagles and red foxes.
Conservation Status and Threats
Very little is known about the Pallas’s cat population, but it is assumed they have a stable, healthy population and a widespread range.
Consequently, they’re ranked as a species of least concern on the IUCN red list.
This means they’re not at risk of going extinct anytime soon.
However, local Pallas’s cat populations are threatened by poaching and various human activities that reduce the population of prey or fragment their habitat, such as rodent control programs, deforestation, mining, and infrastructure projects.
Breeding Pallas’s cats in captivity is difficult, and their mortality in the wild is quite high.
Up to 68% of kittens don’t make it into adulthood, and about 50% of adults die during the winter months of the year.
To better understand this species and boost the odds of their survival, conservationists are actively researching to better understand the ecology, behavior, and habitat requirements of Pallas’s cats.
Recent studies, especially from Mongolia and Russia, have increased what we know about this cat.
About 12% of the Pallas’s cat’s range in Mongolia lies within protected areas.
Various organizations, such as the Pallas’s Cat Working Group and the Pallas’s Cat International Conservation Alliance, are working to ensure the preservation of this cat’s habitat in the wild and improve its chances of survival.
Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies
The Pallas’s cat lives in typically challenging ecosystems.
Yet, it can survive in its cold and arid habitat thanks to a range of remarkable adaptations.
Some of these include:
Thick Fur Coat
Pallas’s cats have a double layer of dense and long fur coats.
These provide insulation against the extreme temperatures of their habitat, allowing them to stay warm during cold winters and providing protection from chilly winds.
The color of the Pallas’s cat’s fur coat serves as effective camouflage in the grassy and rocky landscapes it inhabits.
The coat’s coloration and markings blend seamlessly with the surroundings, making it difficult for predators and prey to spot them.
Stocky Build and Short Legs
The Pallas’s cat’s stocky build and short legs are adaptations to its rocky habitat.
They provide agility and stability on uneven terrain, helping the cat navigate rocky surfaces and stalk prey efficiently.
Powerful Jaw Muscles
Pallas’s cats have strong jaw muscles that aid in catching and consuming their prey.
Their powerful bite is crucial for hunting and tearing through the flesh of their catch.
Cultural Significance and Human Interactions
Pallas’s cats are well-known among the locals in Central Asia.
They’re known as manul in the local language in Mongolia and have been recognized in various Mongolian folklore and stories.
The cat’s distinctive appearance and elusive behavior have contributed to its mystique in the region.
In some local cultures across the region where this cat is found (such as the Tibetan culture), it is believed to possess spiritual powers.
The Pallas’s cat is often associated with luck and protectiveness in such cultures.
But not everyone considers this cat as sacred or mystical.
In the past, the Pallas’s cat was hunted for its fur in countries like Mongolia, China, and Russia, with up to 10,000 cats killed annually.
Hunting of the Pallas’s cat began to decline in the 1970s as governments introduced legal protections for this cat.
Up to 9,000 Pallas’s cat skins were exported from Mongolia in 1987, but the following year, the government made international trade of this animal’s skin illegal.
Domestic trade persists in various places as many locals consider the skin and other body parts of this cat as medicinal.
Future Prospects and Research
Currently, very little is known about the Pallas’s cat due to limited research.
However, this is likely to change as more organizations seek to conduct comprehensive studies about this cat, particularly to aid conservation efforts.
Several Pallas’s cats in Mongolia and Russia have been radio-collared to gather insights about their ecology and the current threats they’re facing.
The Pallas’s Cat International Conservation Alliance (PICA) was founded in 2016 as a collaboration between various organizations, such as the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Nordens Ark Zoo.
The goal of PICA is to boost current knowledge of the Pallas’s cat distribution using various survey techniques to develop a comprehensive conservation action plan for this cat.
The first Conservation Strategy for this cat was eventually published in 2019.
The Pallas’s cat or manul is a small wild cat similar in appearance to domestic house cats but with a stockier build.
It is known for its dense layer of fur, which protects it in the harsh conditions of Central Asia and the steppe habitats where it lives.
It is naturally secretive and rarely seen, yet it plays an important role in the local ecosystem by keeping rodent populations under check.
Some of the most notable prey species of this cat include pikas, marmots, ground squirrels, and voles.
Pallas’s cats have a relatively stable population right now, and they’re not considered threatened in most places.
However, human activities such as poaching and the disappearance of some of their favorite prey species may put their population at risk in the future.