Colours of Wildlife: African Wild Cat

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African Wild Cat

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!"

African Wild Cat by Willem

Again a kitteh! This is indeed the grand-daddy of kittehs. An African Wild Cat, Felis (silvestris) lybica! These are the ancestors of domestic cats. The African wild cat is sometimes considered a full species, Felis lybica, or sometimes a sub-species of the Eurasian Wild Cat, Felis silvestris. At any rate, it is this kind of cat that was first domesticated, and then was bred into the numerous cat breeds we have today. The earliest evidence of cat domestication comes from Egypt, Cyprus and Turkey, around 10 000 years ago. The kitties probably first showed their worth by catching mice and seed-eating birds in the fields of grains, and upon encouragement became friendly with the farmers, the relationship developing from there. Some people have speculated that some other wild cat species might also have been involved in some domestic breeds like the Persian cats. It is indeed so that recently, breeders have hybridized regular cats with wild cat species like the Asian Leopard Cat, and the African Serval, so as to create fancy new breeds like the Bengal and the Savannah. But most ordinary cats are pure descendants of their African progenitors.

Indeed, a great many of house cats still closely resemble our wild cats. Feral cats, especially, tend to the typical striped tabby pattern, and the greyish to warm brown coat colour. I've seen feral cats locally that could pretty much pass for wild cats. The main characteristics of the African wild cat, distinguishing it from most domestic cats, are first, the bright reddish-brown back sides of its ears, and second, the black soles to its front and hind paws. But I've seen both these features in local domestic cats as well. Though it is possible that these might have been the result of domestic cats interbreeding with the local wild cats.

To be sure, African wild cats also occur outside the continent, in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, as far as the southern border of the Caspian Sea. Further north and east they're replaced by the Eurasian wild cat. In Africa, these cats occur almost everywhere, only avoiding the most barren of deserts, and the luxuriant equatorial rainforests where they're replaced by the African Golden Cat. They even occur around mountain ranges in the middle of the Sahara Desert. They only require shelter, which might be trees and shrubs, or rocks, or holes dug in the ground by other animals like Aardvarks or Porcupines.

Aside from the red ears and black feet, African wild cats differ a bit from house cats in their body proportions. They're generally more slender and longer-limbed. An adult male can reach a snout-to-tail length of 100 cm/39" and a weight of 6.4 kg/14 lbs. In South Africa, they come in a darker and a lighter colour form, with intermediates also present. The lighter-coloured ones live in the dry, deserty parts of the country, the darker ones inhabiting the moister eastern and northern regions. The basic coat colour is greyish or brownish, tinged with rufous. The stripes on the body tend to be faint, but bolder on the limbs and tail.

Surprisingly little is known of the behaviour of these cats in the wild. It is a very secretive species, and one that is very seldom seen. As far as I remember, I've had only a single sighting of one myself. These cats are largely nocturnal, using their excellent senses of sight and hearing to hunt by night. They are like other cats hyper-carnivores, absolutely needing to eat meat, though they've been recorded feeding on jackal berries, the fruit of a large local tree in the ebony family. Mostly they eat birds and small mammals; the largest prey recorded were guineafowl (chicken-sized), hares, and the lambs of small antelopes. But as might be expected, they mainly eat mice. Birds make up about a quarter to a third of their diet, and they also eat some small reptiles and amphibians. They hunt by stealthily creeping up on their prey and then pouncing on it, or by leaping to grab birds out of the air. With their short jaws, they have a very powerful bite. The main kill method is a bite to the spine, severing the neck vertebrae and causing rapid death.

Wild cats also, surprisingly perhaps, eat quite a few invertebrates, this even becoming a major part of the diet during droughts when rodent populations dwindle. They catch and consume large crickets and grasshoppers, hawk moths, spiders, scorpions, centipedes and sun/camel spiders.

The jaws of cats are specialized for killing and meat eating. Because their jaws are so short, they have a leverage advantage affording them a very powerful bite. The canine teeth typically enter the space between two neck vertebrae of their victim, forcing them apart until the spinal cord is severed. There are only a few cheek teeth behind the canines, but these are flattened from side-to-side and blade-like, working like shears to cut through tough muscle. Wild cats don't chew much, but cut their prey into smaller chunks which they then swallow whole.

Like most other cats, wild cats have sharp, retractable claws. They use these to catch their prey and also to climb trees. Most of the time, though, they hunt on the ground, but will pursue birds and small mammals into trees, or use their climbing skills to escape from larger predators.

Also like most other cats – lions being the big exception – African wild cats exist solitarily, except when it's breeding time, when numerous males will converge on females in oestrus. The female apparently needs to encounter several competing males to stimulate her into making a choice. The rest of it is much as with house cats. The female will seek out a den for having her kittens, which may number from two to five per litter. She may choose a hole dug by an aardvark or porcupine, or a hollow between rocks or under the roots of trees, or the shelter of a dense shrub or tuft of long grass. She doesn't add any 'bedding'. Once having birthed the kittens, she takes care of them without help from her mate. While the mom's away, the kittens snuggle together to keep warm. If the mom think's there's any threat to her litter, she will move them to a different den, carrying each kitten in her mouth by the scruff of the neck. Like a domestic cat, she buries her faeces, and at any rate does her business well away from the den so as not to attract attention to its presence. She also teaches her kittens to do the same. They stay with their mom until about five months, then they move away to seek their own territories.

African wild cats are still very widespread and in some places abundant, but they face an unusual threat. Anywhere that humans live, they're encountering domestic cats. Being technically the same species, they often breed with these. As a result, the 'pure' type of African wildcat is thus being diluted with genes from domestic cats. Hybrids between house and wild cats typically lack the red backsides of the ears, as well as the long limbs and slender body. All other sorts of genes influencing body proportions and coat patterns also enter their gene pool. This doesn't threaten the existence of the species, as such, but injects a kind of genetic chaos into the population the effects of which we can't really predict. It may well have adverse effects on the cats' hunting and general survival abilities.

On occasion, people have taken and raised wild kittens. They tame easily, but in their behaviour are indeed wilder than house cats, not easily controlled. Still, they tend to become extremely affectionate to their human keepers.

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