Caracal - Adaptations and Facts
The caracal cat is a wild mammal that lives in Africa and the Middle East. The anatomical adaptations that give the caracal its extraordinary beauty and athleticism are the result of 35 million years of felidae evolution. Its tufted ears incite comparisons with the lynx, but its closest genetic relatives are the serval and the African golden cat, which do not have ear tufts. The caracal diverged from these closely related species around 9.4 million years ago. The caracal's adaptations and the variety of its prey serve it in a diverse range of habitats and territory sizes, meaning it is largely unthreatened as a species.
1. Caracal Ear Tufts
The caracal has black ear tufts that can grow up to 10 cm long. Lynx also have these tufts, and the caracal is often called the desert lynx for this reason.
The tufts focus sound into the caracal's ears, improving its ability to pinpoint the position of its prey. For this purpose, the ears are highly flexible, with 29 muscles dedicated to their movement.
The tufts also create very little noise when the caracal brushes against branches and shrubbery, notifying the cat of the obstacle whilst keeping prey oblivious. This allows them to stalk to within 5 meters (16 feet) of their prey.
Caracal bird hunting
2. Hind Legs
These wonders of evolution have extremely powerful hind legs, and can jump approximately 3 meters into the air to catch birds. In India it is a sport to release a caracal among a flock of pigeons to see how many birds it can capture. Some can kill as many as 12 pigeons in one attack. Their hind legs make them the fastest of the small cats, as well as allowing them to traverse rough, mountainous terrain.
3. Survival Without Water
It may be possible for a caracal to go indefinitely without drinking water. This is because their demand for water is satisfied by the fluids in their prey. To help retain water, caracals have evolved to excrete highly concentrated drops of urine. Without a need for a nearby water source, caracals can exploit territory that other cats neglect.
4. Tree Climbing
Much like a leopard, the caracal can climb trees and will sometimes store large prey on branches to return to later. This prevents the 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.
5. Cathemeral Activity
The caracal is typically a nocturnal hunter, but like some cats (e.g. lions), it has adapted to hunting during the day. This behavioral adaptation allows it to acquire more food. Nevertheless, like most cats it will rest during the hottest part of the day to conserve energy.
Caracal with a serval.
6. Foot Pads
Stiff hairs grow between the hairs of the caracal's foot pads. This appears to be an adaptation that allows the animal to walk on soft sand. Indeed, the caracal is found in semi-desert conditions in the Middle East and North Africa. The caracal's ability to thrive in a number of habitats is a barometer of its evolutionary success.
- Name: Caracal comes from the Turkish words "kara kulak" meaning "black ear".
- Habitat: (see map) The caracal can survive in a diverse range of habitats including dry savanna, semi-desert, woodland, scrub-land, and mountainous regions.
- Weight: Female: 11-15 kg (24-33 lbs). Male: 13-20 kg (29-44 lbs).
- Size: Female: 69-103 cm. Male: 75-106 cm (head to body length). Tail length is an additional 20-34 cm.
- Fur: Shares a lion's color and absence of pattern.
- Diet: Birds, small mammals, reptiles, insects, and sometimes plant matter. Occasionally larger prey such as impala, bush buck, and antelope fawns.
- Communication: They can growl, meow, hiss, purr, call, and even bark like dogs. Ear movements are also used to communicate.
- Lifespan: 12-18 years.
- Gestation: 69-81 days.
- Cubs Per Litter: 1-6, weighing 200-250g.
- Cub Maturity: 16-18 months, but may leave their mother after 12 months.
- Predators: Man, and occasionally lions, hyenas, and leopards. Their habitat is being destroyed by desertification and agriculture, and they are often killed for attacking livestock.
- Social Interaction: Solitary, with independent territories that frequently overlap. Males and females interact during the annual mating season.
- Territory: 7 - 1,116 km² (3 - 430 sq. miles). Larger territory is correlated with bigger animals and sparseness of prey.
The caracal is an exquisitely beautiful animal that has been shaped conspicuously by natural selection. Much like man, it is well adapted to a number of habitats and conditions. Unlike man, its ability to live without drinking water, and its remarkable leaping ability, give it an almost superhuman nature. Despite the incursions of man, the caracal is not threatened as a species. It is an evolutionary success story because of the adaptations that ensure its survival and ascendency in the wild.