Manul, Steppe cat
The Pallas's cat (Otocolobus manul) is a small wild cat well camouflaged and adapted to the cold continental climate in its native range. It has rounded rather than vertical slit pupils, a unique feature among small cats. It inhabits rocky montane grasslands and shrublands, where the snow cover is below 15-20 cm (6-8 in) and preys foremost on lagomorphs and rodents.
Pallas’s cat is similar in size to a domestic cat but it looks much bigger because of its stocky build and its long, thick coat, which helps protect it in its frosty habitat. Its shaggy coat is especially thick on its belly to protect it from the snow while stalking prey. The fur changes color depending on the season, in winter being a frosted gray and in spring a gray/fox-red. The pupils of its large eyes, unlike those of other small cats, contract to small circles instead of slits.
Pallas’s cats occur in the west from the Caspian Sea through Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and northern India to China and Mongolia. They inhabit arid, montane shrublands and grasslands, rocky outcrops, scree slopes, and ravines in areas, where the continuous snow cover is below 15-20 cm (6-8 in). In the central part of their range, they live in hilly landscapes, high plateaus, and intermontane valleys that are covered by dry steppe or semi-desert vegetation, such as low shrubs and xerophytic grasses.
Secretive and solitary, Pallas’s cats move slowly but purposefully, concealing themselves within their environment and blending into the background. They are mainly crepuscular but in some areas, they may also be active during the day. In the daytime, Pallas's cats shelter in rock crevices or small caves, the most common place being the abandoned burrows of marmots. Males occupy larger territories than females, which overlap those of a few females. Males and females both scent mark their territory. They are adept predators and hunt by stalking and then ambushing prey, walking fast and opportunistically pouncing on prey. They sometimes wait at the entrances of burrows to pounce when the animal exits. Pallas’s cats growl or yelp when excited, sounding like a small dog. They can also purr.
Pallas's cats are carnivores and mostly eat small rodents and pikas. Small mammals like mouse hares, murines, ground squirrels, and voles are also eaten, as also small birds, grasshoppers, and lizards.
Pallas’s cats have a polygynous mating system, with males mating with several females during a particular mating season. The male follows a female for several days during mating, perhaps to guard her against other males. Their breeding season is from December to March. 3 to 6 kittens are produced after a gestation lasting 9 to 10 weeks. The kittens usually stay inside their den until they are 2 months old, at which time ‘molting’ takes place and they grow an adult coat. At 3 to 4 months of age, they follow the mother to forage in social mother-kitten groups. Kittens will disperse when they are 4 to 5 months of age when usually they have reached their adult size and weight. The young may disperse far from the maternal den and mature quickly. They become reproductively mature within their first year of age.
Major threats to this animal are the large-scale poisoning of vole and pika populations, which are important prey items for Pallas’s cats. Habitat fragmentation and development are other increasing threats to Pallas’s cats. This could cause local extinction of this species, which is already rare, due to the destruction of habitat and the increased number of domestic dogs that prey heavily on these cats. They have also been hunted for many years for their luxurious fur, but international trade in their skin has declined in recent years.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Pallas’s cat is approximately 58,000 mature individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing.