Everyone knows about lions and tigers, but some of nature’s lesser known felines are just as fascinating. Meet the unusual cats that prefer life outside the spotlight
Caracals leap three metres into the air to catch birds in mid-flight
Caracals can be recognised by their distinctive ear tufts, a pair of black stripes running from their forehead to their nose, and white patches surrounding the eyes and mouth. Their tufty ears mean that they’re sometimes mistaken for lynxes, but caracals are actually more closely related to African golden cats and servals. The ear tufts are thought to serve a communicative function, flickering rapidly to convey messages to other caracals nearby. These swift-moving cats are particularly renowned for their hunting skills. They are highly agile, with powerful legs that allow them to jump three metres (10 feet) into the air to take down birds. With incredible reaction speeds, they can twist their bodies to change direction in mid-air. Ancient Egyptians tamed and trained caracals to use their skills for hunting. Nowadays, seeing a caracal hunt is a rare privilege: the cats are mostly nocturnal and highly secretive during the day.
Fishing cats are perfectly adapted to life in the wetlands
Not all cats hate water. Take the fishing cat, for example: these unfussy felines are perfectly happy diving head first into cold rivers and pools. The fishing cat can be found in the swamps and marshy areas of south and Southeast Asia, although their numbers have seen a shocking decline due to the destruction, pollution and agricultural usage of their habitat. As their name suggests, their primary source of food is fish, so over-exploitation of local fish stocks is another serious threat. Fishing cats are solitary animals. Mothers raise their young without the help of the father. Kittens learn to fish by watching their mothers, and can live independently from as young as ten months. An important adaptation for the fishing cat’s semi-aquatic lifestyle is its double-layered fur. The first layer is short and dense, acting as a wetsuit to keep the cat’s skin dry and warm. Meanwhile, its longer second layer of ‘guard’ hairs provide the cat with its olive-grey camouflage.
Kodkods are the smallest cats in the western hemisphere
Even fully grown kodkods have the appearance of adorable baby leopards, with their reddish-grey fur and leopard-like spots. These solitary wild cats are adapted to a life spent high up in the branches of trees, where being small, nimble and light is a distinct advantage. Female kodkods make their nests in trees, and kittens sometimes make it to adulthood without setting a paw on the solid ground. Kodkods were once quite common in parts of Chile and Argentina, but the cats are now rarely seen due to the loss of their habitat. Human encroachment on their home means that there may be fewer than 10,000 mature kodkods left in the wild.
Pallas’s cats change their fur colour with the seasons
The Pallas’s cat – or manul, as it’s also known – has been immortalised in internet memes thanks to its comically flat face, wide-eyed expression and adorably fluffy body. But all that fur isn’t just there to look cute: the Pallas’s cat is only the size of a domestic house cat, and it uses its impressive coat to appear bigger and heavier than it actually is, scaring off potential foes. Pallas’s cats have longer and denser fur than any other cat, which they use to stay warm while hunting in the frigid climates of their cold, rocky mountain homes. During winter, the fur is long, heavy and grey. This changes to a lighter, striped ochre colour during summer.
Margays are amazing climbers and can run headfirst down tree trunks
Cats have long been considered nimble and athletic creatures, but the margay is so agile that it makes ordinary household moggies look positively sluggish. These Central and South American small cats belong to the genus Leopardus, although their tree climbing abilities surpass those of similar-looking cats like the ocelot. Margays spend most of their lives in the trees, chasing birds and monkeys by leaping from branch to branch with jaw dropping accuracy. One special adaptation that makes the margay such an excellent climber is its flexible ankles, which can turn 180 degrees. This allows it to scurry headfirst down trees like a squirrel. They have also been seen hanging from branches by nothing more than a single paw.
Sand cats are the only desert dwelling felines and can go months without water
Deserts are among the most hostile and barren environments in the world, but one species of cat has found a way to inhabit them. Sand cats have a number of clever adaptations that help them to survive the scorching days and bitter nights of deserts in Asia and Africa. Thickly furred feet protect the sand cat’s paws on hot sand, and they shelter in burrows during extreme conditions. The water in their food is enough to sustain them for months without a drink.
Jaguarundis are sometimes mistaken for weasels due to their unconventional looks
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the jaguarundi belongs to a different animal family to the other cats on these pages. This unique looking creature from North, Central and South America is nicknamed the otter cat, due to its unusual love of water and its resemblance to animals from the mustelid family (which includes otters, badgers and weasels). Some people have even confused jaguarundis for a type of American weasel: the tayra. Nonetheless, the jaguarundi is a cat through and through – its closest relative is the cougar, which is also found throughout the Americas. They are communicative animals, with a wide range of vocalisations including whistles, chattering sounds, yaps and bird-like chirps. 13 of these calls have been documented. Another curious characteristic of this cat is its variable fur colour. Some jaguarundis’ fur is a bright foxy red, while others have fur that is black or a brownish grey. For a while, the two colours of cat were thought to be separate species, with the red-furred ones named ‘eyra’.
Servals use super hearing to scout their prey
Servals are African wild cats that look a bit like miniature cheetahs – they have slender bodies, beautifully spotted coats and the longest legs of any cat in relation to their bodies. Despite their resemblance to the fastest land animal on Earth, their genetic makeup belongs to the Caracal genus, alongside African golden cats and caracals. Like their caracal cousins, servals are outstanding hunters, using their phenomenal hearing skills to locate small animals. They slowly stalk their prey before pouncing, dazing the victim with a powerful blow from their forepaws and finally securing the kill with a swift bite to the neck. The serval’s favourite food is rodents, which make up more than 80 per cent of their diet. However, larger animals like duikers, flamingos and small antelopes are also on the menu: rather than eating these all in one go, the serval will hide its biggest kills in dry vegetation and come back for more later. A hybrid animal called the savannah cat occurs when servals breed with domestic cats. These have a taller, slimmer build than the average house cat, and inherit the serval’s appealing spotted coat pattern.
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