The African Black-Footed Cat: A Small and Vulnerable Feline
A Small and Secretive Cat
The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat native to Africa. It’s a beautiful but apparently uncommon animal whose population is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It's nocturnal, secretive, and unsociable, but modern research techniques are slowly allowing us to understand its life in the wild. The scientific name of the cat is Felis nigripes.
Black-footed cats inhabit southern Africa and are found mainly in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. They live in both savanna and semi-desert areas. They are present in some zoos, which allows visitors to see them close up. Zoos are often controversial institutions, but some have benefits. The best ones provide a good environment for their charges and also play a role in wildlife reproduction and conservation. The latter functions are important when a species is in trouble.
The coat of a black-footed cat has black spots and stripes on a buff or light brown background. The stripes are especially noticeable on the shoulders, legs, and tail. The soles of the feet are black, which gives the cats their name (although other types of wild cats also have black soles). The soles can often be seen as the animal moves because the cats are digitigrade. This term means that they walk on their toes.
Black-footed cats are small and lightweight animals. Males may reach a little over five pounds in weight but are usually in the four pound range, while females generally weigh around three pounds. Males are fourteen to seventeen inches long, not including the tail, and eight to ten inches tall at the shoulder. Females have slightly smaller dimensions.
Although the animals resemble domestic cats in some ways and belong to the same family (the Felidae), they belong to a different species than the housecat. Like other members of their family, however, they are often referred to as a "cat".
Black-footed cats are small, but they are not the smallest wild cat in the world. This honour goes to the rusty-spotted cat of India and Sri Lanka. The latter animal weighs between two pounds and three-and-a-half pounds.
The Life of a Black-Footed Cat
The black-footed cat is a solitary animal. In the wild it spends its day sleeping in a burrow dug by another animal such as an aardvark or a porcupine. It's a good digger and enlarges the burrow if necessary. It may also occupy an old termite mound, giving the cat the alternate name of anthill tiger. The animal reminds people of a tiger not only because of its stripes but also because of its ferocity.
At night the cat comes out to hunt. Whenever it can, it moves under cover of shrubs and trees to hide from its prey. The colour and pattern of the coat help to camouflage the animal in dim light. The cat travels between five and twelve miles a night to find food.
The animal has a tapetum lucidum in its eyes. This layer of tissue is located behind the retina. The retina is the layer that sends a signal to the brain when stimulated by light, allowing an animal to see. The tapetum lucidum reflects light that travels through the retina back to the retinal cells, giving them a second chance to be stimulated. This process is important in improving sensitivity to light during the night. It also produces the glowing eye effect when light is shone on some animals at night.
Research suggests that black-footed cats catch between ten and fourteen prey animals every night. This provides a very high energy intake in proportion to their body size compared to the situation for other wild cats. The animals don't seem to require much water. They will drink water if it's available, but they seem to get by with the moisture obtained from the bodies of their prey.
During one night they travel distances of 8-20 km, leaving up to 600 urine spray marks.— WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums)
Hunting for Food
Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking and pouncing on their prey at the last moment. They sometimes chase their prey, however. In captivity they've been observed flattening themselves against the ground when they are close to a prey animal and creeping forward until they are near enough to pounce.
In the wild, the cats have been seen sitting patiently by a rodent's burrow, even closing their eyes as they wait for their prey to emerge. Their large, flicking ears move almost constantly to pick up sounds. Their quick response when any activity occurs indicates that they are definitely not sleeping.
Since the cats are so small, they generally catch small prey animals such as mice, gerbils, shrews, insects, and spiders. They also catch small birds and reptiles. They sometimes kill larger prey, however, such as Cape hares and bustards (large birds that can fly but prefer to live on land). They kill bustards with a bite to the back of the neck. They will also scavenge prey killed by other animals.
Black-footed cats have a high metabolic rate and big appetites. They have been observed gorging themselves on large animals. If they are unable to finish a meal, the cats will bury it or take it to their den to be eaten later.
In one night, a black-footed cat kills between 10 and 14 rodents or small birds, averaging a kill about every 50 minutes.— Luke Hunter, Panthera organization, via Live Science
Captive black-footed cats produce a very loud meow that travels for long distances. This sound is thought to be useful in the wild when a male and female need to attract each other for mating, since they normally roam far apart.
The cats also purr and make a gurgling sound. In addition, they growl and hiss when they are in an aggressive mood. The ears are flattened and lowered to the sides of the head during aggression.
Territories, Mating, and Reproduction
Each cat establishes a territory, which it marks with urine, feces, and scent glands. The males have larger territories than the females. A male's territory may overlap the territory of several females.
According to most researchers, a female is reproductively mature at somewhere between eight and ten months. The only time that male and female black-footed cats come together is to mate. Mating usually takes place in August or September. The female is able to reproduce for only one or two days in this time period and is receptive to a male for just five to ten hours. In some areas the female has two litters a year. Gestation lasts for a little over two months.
Black-footed cats live for up to thirteen years in captivity but probably have a shorter lifespan in the wild.
The kittens are born in November or December in an underground burrow or an old termite mound. The litter consists of one to four kittens, but generally two are born. In the wild the male takes no part in raising the youngsters. The mother frequently transfers her kittens to a new den as they mature, most likely to avoid attracting the interest of predators.
The young cats develop rapidly. One researcher observed that even a five-week-old kitten could kill and eat a live mouse brought to it by its mother. The short mating time of the adults and the rapid development of the youngsters probably make the cats less vulnerable to attack by larger animals. These animals include jackals, caracals, hyenas, and birds of prey.
Some Notable Zoo Births
On Valentine's Day in 2012, a four year old black-footed cat named Cleo gave birth to a kitten at Brookfield Zoo. The zoo is run by the Chicago Zoological Society in the United States. Unfortunately, the kitten was underweight at birth and his mother didn't provide the necessary care. When the zoo staff saw that the kitten wasn't nursing and discovered that his temperature was very low, they became concerned about his chances for survival. As a result, they removed him from his mother to hand rear him. The video above shows the kitten when he was very young.
Other zoos and conservation organizations are breeding black-footed cats, sometimes using assisted reproduction techniques. In 2012, an embryo was created from an egg and sperm in a laboratory and then implanted into the uterus of a female house cat named Amelie. The embryo developed normally. The kitten was named Crystal and was born on February 6th, 2012, at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES). This facility is located in New Orleans. Crystal is shown in the video below.
On April 8th, 2014, three black-footed cat kittens were born at the Philadelphia Zoo. Both parents came from the Kansas City Zoo. The male kittens were named Drogon and Viserian and the female kitten was named Rhaegal.
The Deadliest Cat on Earth
The black-footed cat has recently attracted the media's attention because of its hunting ability. The animal is being called "the deadliest cat on Earth". It's not deadly to humans and large animals, but it is dangerous for small ones.
Although it's small, the cat kills a large number of prey. The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the Panthera wild cat conservation organization say that the black-footed cat has a 60% success rate when hunting. In contrast, a lion has up to a 25% success rate.
The attention bring paid to the cat might be useful if it also draws people's attention to the animal's population status. As is true for so many animals on Earth today, one of the reasons for the vulnerability of the cat's population is habitat destruction and degradation by humans.
With a 60 percent success rate, black-footed cats are about three times as successful as lions, which average a successful kill about 20 to 25 percent of the time.— Luke Hunter, Panthera organization, via Live Science
The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a Red List for animals and plants. This list classifies organisms according to their nearness to extinction.
LC: Least Concern
NT: Near Threatened
CR: Critically Endangered
EW: Extinct in the Wild
Population Status and Threats
The latest assessment of the black-footed cat population was performed in 2016. The IUCN has placed the population in its "Vulnerable" category. The researchers caution that the assessment may not be accurate due to the difficulty in finding the cats. Their patchy distribution, low density, and nocturnal and secretive habits make it hard to find them. The IUCN suspects that the population is decreasing, however.
One probable threat to the cats is habitat destruction and degradation due to livestock grazing and agriculture. In some places the cat's habitat is being destroyed in order for farmers to grow crops. The prey animals that the cats eat may be decreasing in number as a result.
Since it's such a small animal, farmers don't consider the black-footed cat to be a threat to their livestock. However, it's killed in traps designed for larger animals and is also killed when it eats poisoned bait food set out for other predators. The IUCN mentions predation by domestic animals as a possible threat as well as road collisions. The cat's main predators in nature are black-backed jackals and caracals. Habitat shifting due to climate change may also be affecting the cat.
Protection for the Future
It's important that more information is obtained about the black-footed cat population. The animal's population status may be better than suspected, but on the other hand it may be worse. Conservation efforts in the wild are important, but many researchers consider breeding efforts in zoos to be vital. This is why they are excited whenever healthy kittens are born in captivity. Hopefully the species will survive for a long time.
Questions & Answers
What are the benefits of the black-footed cat in its ecosystem?
One benefit is the fact that the black-footed cat helps to keep the rodent population under control. A single cat may eat several thousand rodents in a year. The cat also serves as food for other predators, which helps to sustain them.
© 2012 Linda Crampton