How do sand cats survive in the desert?
We know that the sand cat is confined to areas of sandy desert. It is the only true desert cat. In the Sahara the typical sound cat habitat is flat and open covered with unstable sand out of which grows a few tufts of grass and occasionally there are small bushes (see photo). The temperatures, as you are aware, are very high. In the summer, in the Karakum Desert the air temperatures can reach 40°C. The temperature of the upper layer of sand can rise to over 80°C.
Sand cats manage to deal with these highly inhospitable conditions by retreating into a burrow when it is particularly hot or cold. The cat’s thick coat also offers insulation from the cold. On its feet there are mats of hair which protect the paw pads from the baking heat. They also make it easier for the cat to move through fine sand. They can stay in their burrow for days during snowy weather.
This cat is dependent upon sound detection to a large extent when catching prey. You can deduce this by the fact that this cat has particularly large ears. The ears are also low set which enables them to take advantage of sparse cover. Further, the sound cat is very well camouflaged by the plain, pale, sand-coloured coat.
Also, this small wild feline is able to live without water most of the year because they obtain sufficient water from their prey. Where water is available they will, of course, drink it. One captive sand cat fed on rodents and birds refused water and did not drink for two months. Another one did, however, drink.
The sand cat begins to hunt a little before sunset or just as it becomes dark. They continue throughout the night and they sometimes extend their hunting activity into the early morning hours.
The sand cat’s habitat does in fact support a wide range of potential prey in the form small mammals, birds and reptiles. The diet of this cat varies depending upon where they are living; ranging from hares to squirrels, gerbils, rodents, birds, reptiles, insects and other arthropods. They kill and devour poisonous snakes with aplomb.
Under normal circumstances this cat will probably eat about 10% of its own bodyweight per day. A captive sand cat ate a 250-gram ground squirrel each day. In one extraordinary feeding spree at Tel Aviv University a researcher fed a sand cat a succession of laboratory mice each weighing 25 g. The cat continued to eat until it had swallowed 15 mice. This was a test to see how much an adult male sand cat would eat if allowed to have access to food continuously.
Sand cats are not known to scavenge but they will cover the remains of their prey to return to it if they are unable to devour it all at one sitting. Nomads call this species of cat “the cat that digs holes”. This is because they live in burrows for homes. They don’t dig the hole in their entirety but they occupy abandoned burrows of the red Fox and other folk species or porcupines and modify them. They enlarge the burrows of ground squirrels and gerbils.
A research study in Israel found that one male sand cat had a home range of 16 km². By this I mean this individual considered its home in the wild to cover 16 km² which I believe is a very large area (at 3 kilometers by 6 kilometers) for such a small cat. It is a reason why they are likely to become miserable in captivity.
The sand cat is highly adapted to desert life and copes admirably.