Editor’s Note: This is Part Two in a series about the first sand cat kitten observation ever documented in the species’ African range. Read part one here.
When we returned to camp on our last night in the field after spotting three sand cat kittens, we knew we’d reached a milestone in our research. But we weren’t prepared for the world’s phenomenal reaction!
Shortly after its release last fall, our video generated over five million views. Within a month, the news of our discovery spread through social media, newspapers, and television. These adorable kittens had become famous around the globe.
But this viral footage is not the only documentation of our incredible encounter—we have a second video to share!
When we came across the kittens in the wee hours of the night in April 2017, we set up several camera traps around the tuft of vegetation in which they hid. Upon revisiting the site to retrieve the pictures, we were thrilled to discover these additional clips.
On our way home, we watched them over and over again, hoping to learn something new about this elusive species.
Filmed only six hours after our first encounter, this brand new video—a glimpse of which was featured in the BBC’s “Big Cats” Episode 3—features incredible examples of natural sand kitten behaviors.
It begins with an adorable and touching moment: One curious kitten investigates the camera closely while its more timid siblings stay behind. This difference in temperament among littermates has been documented in several cat species, including tigers and jaguars. Despite their much smaller size, sand cats are no exception!
The daylight changes our perception of the kittens—they look remarkably thinner and more fragile than at night. All three kittens appear in the video, though never all together. They are playful just like human children and domestic kittens, but for wild carnivores, this behavior plays an important role in developing reflexes and hunting skills. At six to eight weeks, they were already very interested in passing rodents like jerboa.
We were happy to observe that our encounter with the kittens didn’t seem to traumatize them, as some people were concerned about—thankfully, shortly after they met us, they were behaving completely normally, playing and enjoying their young lives.
These clips also reveal an unexpected fact: With no wood available to them, the sand cat kittens sharpen their claws on small rounded objects—actually dehydrated dromedary dung balls!
This is also the first time sand cat kittens have been documented grooming. All of the sand cats we’ve studied have carried fleas and ticks, and these kittens were also likely hosts. Grooming is essential for removing these external parasites and for reinforcing the bond between littermates.
The kittens in this video were certainly fully independent by the end of 2017, since females are able to breed every year, and offspring do not stay together, but disperse to find their own territories. During our encounter with the kittens, we also saw a lactating female circling around us—likely their mother. We were able to collar her, which has allowed us to relocate her on several occasions, though not on our most recent expedition. It is possible she shifted her home range and/or started denning to give birth to a new litter.
The videos of these sand cats are particularly valuable given the difficulty of locating and tracking this species in our study area. As the barren environment provides no trees to secure them to, cameras are prone to theft and damage. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to identify areas of high trapping success for these cryptic cats.
We found several juvenile sand cats in early 2018, but since we chose not to capture and mark these kittens in 2017, we will never know if we encounter them again. Additionally, we found sand cats travel greater distances—up to 21 kilometers!—than previously assumed, making particularly extensive movements after being stationary for long periods of time. For this reason, they are difficult to track over long periods of time.
Sand cats were once classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but were downgraded to “Least Concern” in 2016. Even so, the IUCN assessment highlighted the fact that very limited ecological research has taken place on this species. Gaining knowledge about sand cats’ distribution, threats, and status is vital for their conservation. With rising temperatures, the desert may become too harsh for this ecosystem, isolating rodents and sand cats to small pockets and threatening the viability of the species. [AC1]
Our discovery—the result of a collaboration between Rabat Zoo, the High Commission for Water and Forests and the Fight Against Desertification of Morocco, Kolner Zoo, and Panthera France—was recently published in the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s journal, Cat News Issue n°66. We are excited by our preliminary results, which found the sand cats in our study area are highly mobile for a small cat species, giving us hope that sand cats will prove adaptable enough to continue to thrive in the wild.
Panthera and the Sand Cat Sahara Team do not support the capture of wild cats for anything other than properly permitted scientific research. Sand cats are desert-dwelling animals with specific needs and should never be kept as pets.
The team is planning new expeditions in 2018, 2019, and 2020 to continue data collection and behavioral documentation, contributing to a long-term dataset on sand cat ecology. If you want to support this initiative, you can help by making a donation to Panthera France or Panthera’s Small Cat Action Fund (SCAF).
To learn more about Panthera’s Small Cats Program, click here.
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