The Caracal is a cute cat with a streamlined, smooth body, short, golden-reddish coat and original facial markings. This is one of the most beautiful species of wild cats on Earth, also called the desert lynx. The caracal has no spots or stripes and has longer legs and a thinner body than the true lynx.
These are the heaviest as well as the fastest of the small cats in Africa. The anatomical adaptations that give the caracal its extraordinary beauty and athleticism are the result of 35 million years of feline evolution.
Origin of the species and description
The place in the genealogical tree of cats in the caracal is somewhat confused, but it is believed that it is directly related to the serval and the golden cat. The habitat of the caracal is different from its feline cousins. Servals and caracals are similar in size, however servals hunt in wet habitats while caracals stick to drier areas.
Adaptation and diversity of prey in different habitats and in different sizes of territories indicate that the caracal is not endangered as a species. The results of phylogenetic studies show that the caracal and the African golden cat (C. aurata) diverged between 2.93 and 1.19 million years ago. These two species, together with the serval, form the Caracal genetic lineage, which, in turn, dispersed between 11.56 and 6.66 million years ago. The ancestor of this line arrived in Africa about 8.5-5.6 million years ago.
“Felis caracal” — is the scientific name used by Johann Daniel von Schreber in 1776, who described the skin of the Cape of Good Hope cheetah. In 1843 the British zoologist John Gray placed it in the genus Caracal. It is placed in the family Felidae and the subfamily Felinae. In the 19th and 20th centuries, several individuals of the caracal were described and proposed as a subspecies.
Since 2017, three subspecies have been recognized by scientists as valid:
- southern caracal (C. Caracal) – found in South and East Africa;
- northern caracal (C. nubicus) &# 8212; found in North and West Africa;
- Asian caracal (C. Schmitzi) — found in Asia.
The name “caracal” consists of two Turkic words: kara, meaning black, and fist, meaning ear. The first recorded use of this name is in 1760. Alternative name — Persian lynx. Among the Greeks and Romans, the name “lynx” was most likely applied to caracals. This name is sometimes still applied to the caracal, but the modern lynx is a separate species.
Appearance and Features
Caracal is a slender cat with a strong build, short face, long dog teeth, crested ears and long legs. It has a brown or red coat, the color of which varies in different individuals. Females are lighter than males. Their underside is white and, like the African golden cat, is decorated with many small spots. The fur itself, soft, short and dense, becomes coarser in summer.
Ground hair (the main layer of hair that covers the coat) is denser in winter than in summer. The guard hairs can be up to 3 cm long in winter, but shorten to 2 cm in summer. There are black markings on the face: on the whisker pads, around the eyes, above the eyes, and slightly down the center of the head and nose.
A distinctive feature of caracals is elongated, black tufts above the ears in the form of tassels. There are many theories about their purpose. The tufts can keep flies away from the cat's face or help camouflage in tall grass to break the outline of the head. But, the most common version is that the cat moves its ear tufts while communicating with other caracals.
The legs are quite long. The hind legs are disproportionately high and muscular. The tail is short. Eye color varies from golden or copper to gray or green. Melanistic specimens have been recorded but are extremely rare.
Juveniles are distinguished by shorter ear tufts and blue tinted eyes. The subspecies C. caracal may not differ in phenotype. Females are smaller and weigh up to 13 kg, while males can weigh up to 20 kg. The tail is shortened, but it still makes up a significant part of the total body length. The length of the tail varies from 18 cm to 34 cm. The length of the head and body from the nose to the base of the tail is from 62 to 91 cm. Even the smallest adult caracal is larger than most domestic cats.
Photo: Caracal cat
The habitat of the caracal extends across Africa through the Middle East as far as India. It is perfectly adapted to harsh everyday life in the savannah, dry forest, semi-desert, arid hilly steppe and dry mountains. In Africa, the caracal is widely distributed south of the Sahara, but is considered rare in North Africa. In Asia, its range stretches from the Arabian Peninsula, along the Middle East, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan to western India.
In North Africa, the population is disappearing, but there are still many caracals in other African regions. Their limits of settlement are the Sahara Desert and the equatorial forest belt of West and Central Africa. In South Africa and Namibia, C. caracal is so abundant that it is extirpated as a nuisance. Asian populations are less numerous than African ones.
Interesting fact: Caracals were once trained to hunt birds in Iran and India. They were placed in an arena containing a flock of pigeons, and bets were made on how many birds the cat would knock down in one jump.
The species inhabits forests, savannahs, lowland marshes, semi-deserts, and scrub forests, but prefers dry areas with little rainfall and cover available. In mountainous habitats, this occurs at altitudes up to 3000 m. Dry climate with limited leaf cover is preferred for the animal. Compared to servals, caracals can tolerate much drier conditions. However, they rarely inhabit deserts or tropical areas. In Asia, caracals are sometimes found in forests, which is not typical for African populations.
In Benin's Pendjari National Park, the movement of caracals was recorded by camera traps. In the emirate of Abu Dhabi, a male caracal was found using camera traps in the Jebel Hafeet National Park in February 2019, which is the first case since 1984. In Uzbekistan, the caracal was recorded only in the desert regions of the Ustyurt plateau and the Kyzylkum desert. Between 2000 and 2017, 15 individuals were seen alive and at least 11 were killed by shepherds.
What does the caracal eat?
Caracals are strictly carnivorous. The main components of the diet vary depending on the geography of residence. African cats may consume larger animals such as ungulates, while the Asian cat will only consume small vertebrates such as rodents. Livestock are rarely attacked. Although caracals are known for their spectacular jumps when catching birds, more than half of their diet is made up of mammals in all distribution ranges.
The main part of the caracal menu is:
- small monkeys;
Pigeons and partridges are of seasonal importance for the species.
In addition, they can sometimes prey on:
- mountain redunks (African antelopes);
- dorcas gazelle;
- mountain gazelles;
- African bustard.
Caracals consume some reptiles, although this is not a common component of the diet. They are unique among cats of their size and can kill prey two to three times their body weight. Small prey are killed by a bite to the back of the head, while large prey are killed by a choking bite to the throat. Prey is usually captured when the caracal jumps using disproportionately elongated and muscular hind legs.
Interesting fact: Caracal is able to jump into the air and shoot down 10-12 birds at the same time!
Before eating its prey, the caracal often plays for 5-25 minutes «, moving it with its paws. A caracal can even throw a small victim into the air, and then grab it in flight. The reasons for this behavior are not clear. Like the leopard, the caracal can climb trees and sometimes stores large prey on branches to return to later. This prevents prey from being eaten by hyenas and lions, allowing the caracal to make the most of its hunting success. Its large retractable claws and powerful legs give it this climbing ability.
Personality and Lifestyle Traits
Caracal is nocturnal, although some activity can be observed during the day. However, this cat is very secretive and difficult to observe, so its daytime activity can easily go unnoticed. A study in South Africa found that caracals are most active when temperatures drop below 20°C. Activity generally decreases at higher temperatures. The caracal is mostly found alone. The only recorded groups are mothers with their offspring.
Caracal — this is an unusually beautiful animal, shaped by natural selection. It is well adapted to various habitats and conditions. Unlike many species, he is able to survive for long periods without drinking water, and his amazing jumping ability gives him an almost superhuman nature.
This is a territorial animal, they mark the space they occupy with urine and probably feces that are not covered with soil. It is known that one caracal can drive away predators twice its size. Hunt times are usually determined by prey activity, but C. caracal is most often seen hunting at night. In Israel, males have an average of 220 km², and females — 57 km². Male territories range from 270–1116 km² in Saudi Arabia. In Mountain Zebra National Park (South Africa), female territories range from 4.0 to 6.5 km².
These areas overlap a lot. Visible ear tufts and face painting often serve as a method of visual communication. The interaction of caracals with each other by moving the head from side to side is observed. Like other cats, the caracal meows, growls, hisses and purrs.
Social Structure and Reproduction
Before mating begins, females spread urine, the smell of which attracts and notifies the male that she is ready to mate. The distinctive sound mating call is also a method of attraction. There have been several different forms of mating systems observed for caracals. When a female is courted by multiple males, the group may fight to mate with her, or she may choose her own partners, preferring older, larger males.
Mating occurs with several partners during the week. When a female chooses a mate. A couple can stay together for up to four days, during which copulation occurs several times. Females almost always copulate with more than one male. Although both sexes become sexually mature at 7 to 10 months of age, successful copulation will occur at 14 to 15 months of age.
The female can go into heat at any time during the year. This is associated with the control of the female's nutrition. When there is a relative abundance of food (which varies by range), the female will enter oestrus. This explains peak birth dates between October and February in some regions. A female cannot have more than one litter per year. The gestation period is 69 to 81 days and the female gives birth to 1 to 6 kittens. No more than 3 kittens are born in the wild.
Females invest a lot of time and energy in their young. A tree cavity, abandoned burrow, or cave is often chosen for childbirth and the first four weeks of postnatal development. At the same time, babies begin to play and eat meat. Care continues until the kittens are about 15 weeks old, but they will not get real independence until 5-6 months old.
Natural enemies of caracals
External camouflage is the main defense against predators. Caracals prefer open spaces to inhabit, so when threatened, they lie flat on the ground, their brown coat acting as instant camouflage. In addition, they are very agile on the rocky terrain, which also helps to avoid large predators:
However, the listed predators rarely hunt the caracal, its main enemy is man. People kill them for attacking livestock, although this occurs only in some areas of the animal, but leads to a large number of deaths (2219 animals in one area). This is especially the case in South Africa and Namibia, where anti-predator programs have been introduced. Even with various programs, caracals quickly overpopulate farmland.
He is also attacked for his skin and his meat, which some tribes consider a luxury. Although the losses from this kind of activity are insignificant, since caracal skins are not in demand among other nationalities. The caracal can live up to 12 years in the wild, and some adult caracals live up to 17 years in captivity.
Although caracals are both predators and prey, lions and hyenas do not hunt them regularly. Karcals have the greatest impact on ecosystems as population control of other species. They consume everything that is available and affect the least amount of energy for trapping and killing. In some regions, caracals — one of the few species that kills certain types of prey.
Population and species status
The actual number of caracals in the wild is unknown, so a thorough assessment of their population status is not possible. They are considered rare or endangered in Asia and North Africa. In central and southern Africa, they are considered widespread and are hunted wherever they are. Poisoned carcasses that kill many carnivores are released by ranchers to kill predators.
Between 1931 and 1952, an average of 2,219 caracals per year were killed in South Africa during anti-predator operations. Namibian farmers who responded to a government questionnaire reported that up to 2,800 caracals were killed in 1981.
Fun fact: An additional threat is severe habitat loss. As people move further into the area, the animals are driven out and the persecution intensifies.
The locals kill the caracal to protect the livestock. In addition, he is threatened by catching for the animal trade in the Arabian Peninsula. In Turkey and Iran, caracals often die in traffic accidents. In Uzbekistan, the main threat to caracals is the killing by pastoralists in retaliation for the loss of livestock.
African caracal populations are listed on CITES Appendix II, while Asian populations are listed on CITES Appendix I. Caracal hunting is prohibited in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia and Turkey. In Namibia and South Africa, it is considered a “problem animal” and is allowed to be hunted to protect livestock.
Interesting fact: The caracal has been listed as endangered in Uzbekistan since 2009 , and in Kazakhstan since 2010.
It is considered to be near extinction in North Africa, endangered in Pakistan, endangered in Jordan, but stable in central and southern Africa. The international trade in caracals as pets is particularly prevalent in the United States, Russia, Canada, and the Netherlands. Although the number of exported kittens is considered low, there are indications that this trade may be increasing.
The caracal has been on the IUCN Animal of Least Concern list since 2002, as it is widely distributed in more than 50 countries where it is threatened there is no animal. Loss of habitat due to the expansion of agriculture, the construction of roads and settlements is a major threat in all countries of the range.