(Otocolobus) manul, or Pallas' cat
, is one of 38 species of cat
to be found around the world.
Weighing in at about 5.5-10 lbs, or 2.5-4.5 kg, and having a body length of about 20in and a tail of about 10in, the manul is comparable in size to a small house cat. In fact, my small house cat, an oriental that was abandoned as a kitten, just about matches those stats.
The manul is commonly called the Pallas' cat after German naturalist Peter Pallas (1741-1811) who first described the cat among his descriptions of much of the Russian fauna. He originally, and erroneously, suggested that it was the ancestor of the Persian breeds of domestic cats due to its long fur, stocky build, and flattened face. Manul is the Russian as well as the Mongolian name. They are also called steppe cats and rock wildcats.
The oldest living species of cat, the manul evolved some 10 million years ago. Its small broad head has large round eyes and blunt wide-set ears. The eyes, which are set high, contract to small circular pupils, rather than slitted pupils as in other small cats. They also have a well-developed nictating membrane that affords protection against wind and the regular dust storms that arise in parts of their range. The ears are small and set low on the sides, an adaptation to hunting in open country with little cover.
With an extremely thick and heavy coat, the manul has the longest and densest coat of any of the felid species. The underfur, the hair on the belly and tail, is nearly twice as long as on the top and sides. The thick fur insulates them, providing a good source of insulation against the frozen ground and snow. The tail can be wrapped around the feet or body like a thick muffler. The manul's long coarse fur can be anywhere from sandy to grey to russet for the base coat with the tips of the guard hairs (the longer coarser hairs) being white, giving the cat an overall 'frosted' look. There are sometimes faint stripes along the sides, and the underfur is notably darker. There are also some black spots on the forehead, and black stripes on each ruffed cheek as well as dark rings on the black-tipped tail. The lips, chin, and throat are all white.
Manuls look much heavier than they really are due to their thick build and heavy coats. They are well adapted to the various habitats they endure in central Asia and have been observed at altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet. Their short, thick legs and compact bodies enable them to climb rocky crevices and cliff faces easily.
The manul's range extends from Siberia in the north down to Tibet in the southeast and west as far as the Caspian Sea. The cat's preferred habitat includes barren mountainous regions, rocky deserts, plateaus and riverbanks, rolling steppes, and exposed rock outcrops or expanses of talus are a favored characteristic. During daylight hours, the cats sleep in caves, burrows, or other protected hollows, becoming more active around dusk. Their primary prey are rodents and other small mammals and birds. Pika form the major part of the diet, which also includes such things as voles, marmots, ground squirrels, larks, sand grouse, and ptarmigan. While they commonly will chase down their prey, they have also been observed waiting in ambush outside dens and, in cases where the dens are shallow enough, fishing the prey out with their paws.
The manul is thought to live about 12 years, supported by the life spans of captive animals. They reach sexual maturity about 12 months after birth, with a gestation period of approximately 70 days. Litters, which are typically born in late April and May, can have anywhere from 1 to 8 kittens, and average about 3 to 5. The males are thought to have a home range of around 4 sq. km. and their mating call is said to be something of a cross between a small dog's bark and the hooting of an owl. The females' duration of estrous is thought to be short, and sexual receptivity does not exceed 42 hours in captive studies. The kittens have a dark, woolly coat, minus the frosted guard hairs of the adults, which they molt around two months after birth. They achieve adult size and weight at about eight months.
Due to hunting for their luxurious pelts and eradication of their primary food source, the manul is thought to be threatened with extinction in its natural habitat. Reportedly, approximately 10,000 were killed per year in the 1980's in the central Mongolia region, until 1988 when hunting was banned and trade has dropped considerably. Recently, they have disappeared from much of the Caspian region and have been virtually eliminated from the eastern-most part of their range. The fur, often used in for caps, collars, and coats, is prized for both its warmth and its durability. The pika is being poisoned in some parts of the cats' territory because it is believed to be a vector for plague or they compete with domestic stock animals for grazing land.
The International Species Information Service lists 107 cats worldwide, with 38 of those in the United States. The estimated world population is less than 20,000. They are regulated by CITES as Appendix II species. While not covered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, they are protected by national legislation over much of their known range. While the cat occurs widely, it is nowhere considered common, and over much of its range is considered vulnerable to rare and uncommon. Due to their current endangerment in the wild, recent conservation efforts in North American zoos have focused primarily on breeding. Although captive cats reproduce reasonably well, they have an extremely high mortality rate in newborns (80%) due to Toxoplasma gondii infection.