Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
Oh no! Even in 'Colours of Wildlife', you can't escape the kittehs! But I hope you consider this one deserving. It is a Sand Cat, Felis margarita, which is Africa's second-smallest wild cat species, and one of the cutest in the entire world. Its scientific name commemorates Jean Auguste Margueritte, who explored the Sahara in the Nineteenth Century. These desert-dwelling felines are recognizable by their sandy colour and their big, wide-set ears. They occur in the western and northern reaches of the Sahara Desert, and also in the mid-East, Arabia and southwestern- to central Asia. The sand cat is a 'sister' species of a group of four which includes the European wild cat, the African wild cat, the domestic cat and the Chinese mountain cat. In the central Asian deserts, local sand cats get an extra-long, dense coat in the winter.
Sand cats are the size of a small domestic cat, ranging in weight from 1.5 kg/3.3 lbs to 3.4 kg/7.5 lbs. They have long, dense, soft fur, protection against sand blasted by winds, as well as the cold of the desert winter nights. Their light coloration also disguises them well amidst the sand… though they're out and about mostly at night. The only prominent markings they have, are a couple of dark stripes around the elbows, haunches, and tail. On the body, adults only have light, brownish freckling marking the sandy colour. There is some variation, some being more boldly marked than others.
Tiny Hunter of the Desert Wastes
There is not much food lying around in the Sahara Desert … consequently, sand cats need to expend quite a lot of energy and skill to get their noms, and have some superb adaptations. They prey mainly on gerbils – real gerbils, not hamsters, which some pet owners mistakenly call gerbils. Actual gerbils are lovely, large-eyed, mostly desert-dwelling mice. They're nocturnal, and stay in burrows they dig in firm sand. They're very wary. Thus those huge, wide ears of the sand cats. They can angle their ears downward, so as to hear what's happening below the ground surface. They are great diggers themselves, and if they find a gerbil, will quickly dig it out and dispatch it with their proportionally-very-long canines.
Deserts also host reptiles. These cold-blooded critters have lower energy needs than birds or mammals, and can thus more easily survive in places where not much is available to eat. Desert lizards eat mostly insects, scorpions and spiders, and then get eaten themselves by sand cats. Some lizard species run around the sandy patches, while others make their home in regions that are more rocky. Few people realize that the Sahara is not all sand dunes; most of it actually consists of large expanses of rock sheets with rocks and stones lying about. These supply nifty crevices in which lizards can hide. But the cats sometimes manage to wiggle them out. They catch small desert snakes as well. Sand cats will also eat insects and arachnids. Lizards, snakes and insects may not be very appetizing, but serve if they're the only food a cat can get. Furthermore, sand cats will bury excess food in the sand, as a store that will keep for a while.
Strangely, sand cats are inept at catching birds. This is likely a result of their specialisation, and their tendency to keep their focus on the ground surface. But as it is, not many birds live in open deserts … those that do, are mainly larks and sandgrouse.
The sand cat is very stealthy; when prowling, it keeps itself low to the ground, so as to not be easily spotted either by its intended prey, or by larger desert predators like striped hyenas or golden jackals, which might want to make a meal of it. Their paws are densely covered in fur, so that it makes no noise, and also give them traction on loose sand. They are skilful diggers and excavate their dens in the firmer sand found around and underneath desert bushes. In these dens, they go into a kind of torpor during the day – a very deep sleep during which their metabolism drops and they expend minimal energy. Sand cats also need very little water, getting the majority of what they need from the body fluids of their prey.
Socially, sand cats are loners, except when pairing up to breed. They communicate by mews as well as barks! A lot of their communication is by smell – they urine-spray landmarks in their ranges.
Sand kittens appear to be born in winter and spring, when it is somewhat cooler and moister than usual. A female will deliver three or four kittens in her den. They are exceptionally cute! In some regions, in good years, a female can even give birth to two litters. The kittens grow quickly and are independent at the age of one year.
At present, sand cats are extremely widely distributed, but not very numerous, as deserts can't sustain huge populations. They're at some risk from human activities: domestic cats and dogs, as well as ones that have gone feral, compete with them and prey on them around human habitations. They also catch diseases and parasites from feral cats. But in remote desert regions, they are still safe and at present can't be considered endangered. There are quite a few of them in zoos … but they're somewhat of a challenge to keep since they easily get sick in moist climates.