Black-footed cat

Black-footed cat — one of the smallest cat species in the world and the smallest in Africa. The black-footed cat is named for its black pads and the black undersides of its paws. Despite its size, this cat is considered the deadliest in the world. They achieve the highest kill rate, successfully passing the target 60% of the time. Other wild cats, such as lions and leopards, rarely succeed more than 20% of the time.

Origin of the species and description

Photo : Black-footed cat

Photo: Black-footed cat

Black-footed cats are found only in three countries in southern Africa:

  • Botswana;
  • Namibia;
  • South Africa.

These cats are found mainly in short to medium length plains, scrub desert and sandy plains, including the Kalahari Desert and Karu. Areas of grass with a high density of rodents and birds provide optimal habitat. They seem to avoid thickets and rocky terrain, possibly due to the introduction of other predators. The average annual rainfall in the region is 100-500 mm.

Video: Black-footed cat

The black-footed cat is quite rare compared to other small cats in South Africa. Knowledge of the behavior and ecology of this cat is based on many years of research into the Benfontein Wildlife Refuge and two large farms in central South Africa. Researchers from the Black-footed Cat Working Group continue to study cats in these three areas.

Black-footed cats share their range with other predators — African wildcat, Cape foxes, long-eared foxes and black-backed jackals. They hunt smaller prey on average than African wild prairie cats, although they both take roughly the same number (12-13) of prey species per night. Cats coexist with jackals (cat predators) using burrows during the day. They share space with Cape foxes, but do not use the same habitats, activity times, or prey on the same types of prey.

Appearance and Features

Photo: What a black-footed cat looks like

Photo: What a black-footed cat looks like

Native to the grasslands of southern Africa, the black-footed cat has a remarkably round face and a light brown body with black spots that is small even compared to domestic cats.

The black-footed cat's fur is yellowish brown and is marked by black and brown patches merging into broad stripes on the neck, legs, and tail. The tail is relatively short, less than 40% of the length of the head, and is marked with a black tip. The head of a cat with black legs is similar to the head of domestic cats, it has large ears and eyes. The chin and throat are white, with distinct dark throat bands and a black-tipped tail. The auditory bulges are enlarged by a total length of about 25% of the length of the skull. Males are heavier than females.

An interesting fact: The difference between black-footed cats and other cats is that they are poor climbers and are not interested in tree branches. The reason is that their stocky bodies and short tails make climbing trees difficult.

These cats get all the moisture they need from their prey, but also drink water when it's available. Black-footed cats are known for their courage and tenacity. The black-footed cat's vision is six times better than that of humans, aided by its extremely large eyes. They are also equipped with excellent night vision and impeccable hearing, capable of picking up even the tiniest sound.

The wild feline is only 36 to 52 cm long, about 20 cm high and weighs 1 to 3 kg, according to the International Society for Endangered Cats. Admittedly, these measurements don't seem very impressive when compared to big cats, which are some of the most formidable predators in the world. But despite its small size, the black-footed cat hunts and kills more prey in one night than a leopard in six months.

Where does the black-footed cat live?

Photo: African black-footed cat

Photo: African black-footed cat

The black-footed cat is endemic to southern Africa and is found mainly in South Africa and Namibia, where it is equally rare. But also found in Botswana, in minor amounts in Zimbabwe, and possibly minor in Southern Angola. The northernmost records are about 19 degrees south in Namibia and Botswana. Thus, this is a limited range of species with the least distribution among cats in Africa.

Black-footed cat — grassland and semi-desert habitat specialist, including arid open savannah with ample soil-dwelling small rodents and birds and sufficient cover for hunting. It mostly inhabits dry areas and prefers open, sparsely vegetated habitats such as open savannahs, grasslands, Karoo and Kalahari areas with sparse shrub and tree cover and an average annual rainfall of 100 to 500 mm. They live at altitudes from 0 to 2000 m.

Black-footed cats are nocturnal inhabitants of the arid lands of southern Africa and are usually associated with open sandy grassy habitats. Although they are little studied in the wild, savannah areas with tall grass and high density of rodents and birds appear to be the optimal habitat. During the day, they live in abandoned burrows dug or in holes in termite mounds.

During the year, males will travel up to 14 km, while females travel up to 7 km. The territory of the male overlaps the territories of one to four females. These desert dwellers are difficult to keep in captivity outside of their native range. They have very specific habitat requirements and must live in dry conditions. At the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany, however, excellent progress has been made, and the bulk of the population is in captivity.

Now you know where the black-footed cat lives. Let's see what she eats.

What does a black-footed cat eat?

Photo: Wild black-footed cat

Photo: Wild black-footed cat

The black-footed cat has a broad diet, and over 50 different prey species have been identified. She preys mainly on rodents, small birds (about 100 g) and invertebrates. The animal eats mainly small mammals such as mice and gerbils. Its prey usually weighs less than 30-40 g, and it captures about 10-14 small rodents per night.

Occasionally, the black-footed cat also feeds on reptiles and larger prey such as bustards (such as the black bustard) and hares. When they prey on these larger species, they hide some of their prey, such as in hollows, for later consumption. The black-footed cat also preys on emerging termites, catching larger winged insects such as grasshoppers, and has been observed to feed on the eggs of black bustards and larks. Black-footed cats are also known as scavengers.

One adaptation to dry conditions allows a black-footed cat to get all the moisture it needs from food. In terms of interspecific competition, the black-footed cat captures smaller prey on average than the African wildcat.

Black-footed cats use three very different methods to catch their prey:

  • first the method is known as “fast hunting”, in which cats quickly and “almost randomly” jump over tall grass, catching small prey such as birds or rodents;
  • the second of their methods takes them on a slower course through their habitat, with cats quietly and cautiously waiting to sneak up on potential prey;
  • finally, they use the “sit and wait” method near a rodent burrow, a technique also called hunting.

Interesting fact: A black-footed cat kills between 10 and 14 rodents or small birds in one night, on average killing every 50 minutes. With a success rate of 60%, black-footed cats are about three times more successful than lions, resulting in an average kill success rate of about 20-25% of the time.

Character and lifestyle features

Photo: Black-footed cat from Africa

Photo: Black-footed cat from Africa

Black-footed cats — mostly land dwellers. These are nocturnal and solitary animals, with the exception of females with dependent cubs, as well as during the mating season. They are active most of the night and travel an average of 8.4 km in search of food. During the day, they are rarely seen, as they lie on rocky crevices or next to abandoned burrows of spring hares, ground squirrels, or porcupines.

Fun fact: In some areas, black-footed cats use hollowed-out dead termite mounds – a colony of termites, thanks to which the animals are called “tigers of the anthill.”

Household sizes vary between regions depending on available resources and are quite large for a small cat with an average size of 8.6-10 km² for females and 16.1-21.3 km² for males. Male households overlap with 1-4 females, and intra-sex households occur at the outer boundaries between resident males (3%) but average 40% between females. Males and females spray the scent and thus leave their mark, especially during the mating season.

The black-footed cat pursues its prey on the ground or waits at the entrance to a rodent burrow. She can catch birds in the air as they take off, as she is an excellent jumper. The black-footed cat uses all suitable hiding places. Scent marking by spraying urine on tufts of grass and shrubs is thought to play an important role in reproduction and social organization. Black-footed cats are extremely unsociable. They will run and take cover at the slightest hint that someone or something should be nearby.

Fun fact: Black-footed cats are louder than other cats of their size, presumably so they can call over relatively long distances. However, when close to each other, they use quieter purrs or gurgles. If they feel threatened, they will hiss and even growl.

Social structure and reproduction

Photo: Black-footed cat from the Red Book

Photo: Black-footed cat from the Red Book

The breeding season of black-footed cats is not yet fully understood. Wild cats mate from the end of July to March, leaving only 4 months during which no mating takes place. The main mating season begins in late winter, in July and August (7 out of 11 (64%) matings), resulting in litters born in September/October. One or more males follow the female, who is receptive for only 2.2 days and copulates up to 10 times. The estrus cycle lasts 11-12 days, and the gestation period — 63-68 days.

Females usually give birth to 2 kittens, but sometimes three kittens or only 1 can be born. This is quite rare, but it happened that there were four kittens in the litter. A kitten weighs between 50 and 80 grams at birth. Kittens are blind and completely dependent on their mothers. Kittens are born and raised in a burrow. Mothers will frequently move cubs to new locations after they are about a week old.

The cubs open their eyes at 6-8 days, take solid food at 4-5 weeks and kill live prey at 6 weeks. They are weaned from 9 weeks. A black-footed kitten develops faster than domestic kittens. They must do this because the environment they live in can be dangerous. After 5 months, the cubs become independent, but remain within the reach of the mother longer. The age of puberty for females occurs at 7 months, and spermatogenesis in males occurs at 9 months. Black-footed cats have a lifespan of up to 8 years in the wild and up to 16 years in captivity.

Fun Fact: Unusually high levels of creatinine have been found in the blood of a black-footed cat. Apparently, it also requires more energy than other African wild cats.

Natural enemies of black-footed cats

Photo: Wild black-footed cat

Photo: Wild black-footed cat

The main threats to black footed cats are habitat degradation and indiscriminate pest control practices such as the use of venom. Farmers in South Africa and Namibia consider the similar African wildcat a predator of small livestock and set traps and poisoned bait to get rid of them. It also threatens the black-footed cat, which accidentally dies in such random traps and hunting activities.

Carcass poisoning while controlling a jackal can also pose a threat to him, as the black-footed cat readily picks up all the garbage. In addition, there is increasing interest in black-footed cats in the trophy hunting industry, as evidenced by permit applications and inquiries from taxidermists.

A similar threat — locust poisoning, which is the preferred food of these cats. They have few natural enemies in agricultural areas, so black-footed cats may be more common than expected. It is thought that the loss of key resources such as prey sites and dens due to human impacts may be the biggest long-term threat to the black-footed cat. Mainly population decline due to bushmeat hunting threatens this species.

The entire range of the species is dominated by farming and overgrazing, which leads to habitat degradation, and may lead to a reduction in the prey base of small vertebrates in black-footed cats. The black-footed cat also dies in vehicle collisions and is predated by snakes, jackals, caracals and owls, as well as pet deaths. Increased interspecific competition and predation can become a threat to the species. Domestic cats can also threaten the black-footed cat through disease transmission.

Population and species status

Photo: What a black-footed cat looks like

Photo: What the black-footed cat looks like

Black-footed cats are the main predators of birds and small mammals in their habitats, controlling such way of its population. The black-footed cat is classified as vulnerable in the Red Book and is much rarer than other small cat species found in southern Africa. These cats can be found at low density.

Their distribution is considered to be relatively limited and heterogeneous. Collection of records over the past five years, including using posters, has shown that the highest density of the black-footed cat population is in the distribution band running from north to south through central South Africa. There are fewer records of this group in both the east and the west.

In a long-term radar study of black-footed cats over a 60 km² area in Benfontein, Northern Cape Province, Central South Africa, the black-footed cat density was estimated at 0.17 individuals/km² in 1998-1999 but only 0.08 individuals /km² in 2005-2015 In the Newyars Fountain, the density was estimated at 0.06 black-footed cats/km².

However, the black-footed cat population is estimated at 13,867 animals, of which 9,707 are estimated to be adults. No subpopulation is considered to contain more than 1000 adults due to the patchy distribution of the species.

Black-footed Conservation

Photo: Black-footed cat from the Red Book

Photo: Black-footed cat from the Red Book

The black-footed cat is listed on CITES Appendix I and protected throughout most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Botswana and South Africa. Black-footed cat — one of the most studied small felids. For many years (since 1992) animals with radar have been observed near the Kimberley in South Africa, so much is known about their ecology and behavior. A second research area has been established near De Aar, 300 km to the south, since 2009. Because the black-footed cat is difficult to observe, there is still little information available about its distribution and conservation status.

Recommended conservation measures include more detailed studies of species distribution, threats and status, as well as further ecological studies in various habitats. There is an urgent need to create conservation plans for the black-footed cat, which requires more data on the species.

The Black-footed Cat Working Group seeks to conserve the species by conducting multidisciplinary species studies using various means such as video filming, radio telemetry, and the collection and analysis of biological samples. Recommended conservation measures include smaller-scale population distribution studies, especially in Namibia and Botswana.

Black-footed cats are just one species in an extremely diverse cat family, many of which are difficult to observe in the wild and are not quite are clear to us. And while most cats face serious threats of habitat loss and destruction due to human activities, protection efforts may still preserve the vulnerable population of this species.

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