The African Black-Footed Cat: A Small and Vulnerable Feline
A Small and Secretive Cat
The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat native to Africa. It’s a beautiful but apparently uncommon animal whose population is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Black-footed cats are nocturnal, secretive and unsociable, but modern research techniques are slowly allowing us to understand their lives in the wild.
The cats are present in some zoos, which allows visitors to see them close up. Zoos are often controversial institutions, but some have benefits. The best ones provide a good environment for their charges and also play a role in wildlife reproduction and conservation. The latter functions are important when a species is in trouble.
Africa's Smallest Wild Cat
The coat of a black-footed cat has black spots and stripes on a buff or light brown background. The stripes are especially noticeable on the shoulders, legs and tail. The soles of the feet are black, which gives the cats their name (although other types of wild cats also have black soles). The soles can often be seen as the animal moves because the cats are digitigrade. This term means that they walk on their toes.
Black-footed cats are small and lightweight animals. Males may reach a little over five pounds in weight but are usually in the four pound range, while females generally weigh around three pounds. The cats inhabit southern Africa and are found mainly in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, in savanna and semi-desert areas. Their scientific name is Felis nigripes.
Although black-footed cats are small, they are not the smallest wild cat in the world. This honour goes to the rusty-spotted cat of India and Sri Lanka. The latter animal weighs between two pounds and three and a half pounds.
The Life of a Black-Footed Cat
The black-footed cat is a solitary animal. In the wild it spends its day sleeping in a burrow dug by another animal such as an aardvark or a porcupine. The cat is a good digger and enlarges the burrow if necessary. It may also occupy an old termite mound, giving the cat the alternate name of anthill tiger. The animal reminds people of a tiger not only because of its stripes but also because of its ferocity.
At night the cat comes out to hunt. Whenever it can, it moves under cover of shrubs and trees to hide from its prey. The colour and pattern of the coat help to camouflage the animal in dim light. A cat travels between five and twelve miles a night to find food.
Research suggests that black-footed cats catch between ten and fourteen prey animals every night. This provides a very high energy intake in proportion to their body size compared to the situation for other wild cats. The cats don't seem to require much water. They will drink water if it's available, but they seem to get by with the moisture obtained from the bodies of their prey.
During one night they travel distances of 8-20 km (edit: 5-12 miles), leaving up to 600 urine spray marks.— WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums)
Black-Footed Cats at the Columbia Zoo
Hunting for Food
Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking, pouncing on their prey at the last moment. They do sometimes chase their prey, however. In captivity they've been observed flattening themselves against the ground when they are close to a prey animal and creeping forward until they are near enough to pounce.
In the wild, the cats have been seen sitting patiently by a rodent's burrow, even closing their eyes as they wait for their prey to emerge. Their large, flicking ears move almost constantly to pick up sounds. Their quick response when any activity occurs indicate that they are definitely not sleeping.
Since the cats are so small, they generally catch small prey animals such as mice, gerbils, shrews, insects and spiders. They also catch small birds and reptiles. They sometimes kill larger prey, however, such as Cape hares and bustards (large birds that can fly but prefer to live on land). They kill bustards with a bite to the back of the neck. They will also scavenge prey killed by other animals.
Black-footed cats have big appetites and have been observed gorging themselves on large animals. If they are unable to finish a meal, the cats will bury it or take it to their den to be eaten later.
A Meowing Cat
Captive black-footed cats produce a very loud meow that travels for long distances. This sound is thought to be useful in the wild when a male and female need to attract each other for mating, since they normally roam far apart.
The cats also purr and make a gurgling sound. In addition, they growl and hiss when they are in an aggressive mood. The ears are flattened and lowered to the sides of the head during aggression.
Kittens Hunting for Crickets
Mating and Reproduction
Each cat establishes a territory, which it marks with urine, feces and secretions from scent glands. Males have larger territories than females. Females maintain separate territories, but a male's territory may overlap the territory of several females.
According to most researchers, a female cat is reproductively mature at somewhere between eight and ten months. The only time that male and female black-footed cats come together is to mate. Mating usually takes place in August or September. The female is able to reproduce for only one or two days in this time period and is receptive to a male for just five to ten hours. In some areas the female has two litters a year. Gestation lasts for a little over two months.
Black-footed cats live for up to thirteen years in captivity but probably have a shorter lifespan in the wild.
Kittens at the Philadelphia Zoo
The kittens are born in November or December in an underground burrow or in old termite mound. The litter consists of one to four kittens, but generally two are born. In the wild the male takes no part in raising the youngsters. The mother frequently transfers her kittens to a new den as they mature, most likely to avoid attracting the interest of predators.
The young cats develop rapidly. One researcher observed that even a five week old kitten could kill and eat a live mouse brought to it by its mother. The short mating time of the adults and the rapid development of the youngsters probably make the cats less vulnerable to attack by larger animals. These animals include jackals, caracals, hyenas and birds of prey.
A Very Young Black-Footed Cat at Brookfield Zoo
Some Notable Zoo Births
On Valentine's Day in 2012, a four year old black-footed cat named Cleo gave birth to a kitten at Brookfield Zoo. The zoo is run by the Chicago Zoological Society in the United States. Unfortunately, the kitten was underweight at birth and his mother didn't provide the necessary care. When the zoo staff saw that the kitten wasn't nursing and discovered that his temperature was very low, they became concerned about his chances for survival. As a result, they removed him from his mother to hand rear him. The video above shows the kitten when he was very young.
Other zoos and conservation organizations are breeding black-footed cats, sometimes using assisted reproduction techniques. In 2012, an embryo was created from an egg and sperm in a laboratory and then implanted into the uterus of a female house cat named Amelie. The embryo developed normally. The kitten was named Crystal and was born on February 6th, 2012, at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species (ACRES). This facility is located in New Orleans.
On April 8th, 2014, three black-footed cat kittens were born at the Philadelphia Zoo. Both parents came from the Kansas City Zoo. The male kittens were named Drogon and Viserian and the female kitten was named Rhaegal.
Crystal: A Kitten Created by Assisted Reproduction
The International Union for Conservation of Nature maintains a Red List for living things. This list classifies creatures according to their nearness to extinction.
LC: Least Concern
NT: Near Threatened
CR: Critically Endangered
EW: Extinct in the Wild
Population Status and Threats
The latest assessment of the black-footed cat population was performed in 2016. The IUCN has classified the population as "Vulnerable". The researchers caution that the assessment may not be accurate due to the difficulty in finding the cats. Their patchy distribution, low density and nocturnal and secretive habits make it hard to find them. The IUCN suspects that the population is decreasing, however.
One probable threat to the cats is habitat degradation due to livestock grazing and agriculture. The prey animals that the cats eat may be decreasing in number as a result. Since it's such a small animal, farmers don't consider the black-footed cat to be a threat to their livestock. However, it's killed in traps designed for larger animals and is also killed when it eats poisoned bait food set out for other predators. The IUCN mentions predation by domestic animals as a possible threat as well as road collisions. The cat's main predators in nature are black-backed jackals and caracals.
Protection for the Future
It's important that more information is obtained about the black-footed cat population. Their status may be better than suspected, but on the other hand it may be worse. Conservation efforts in the wild are important, but many researchers consider breeding efforts in zoos to be vital. This is why they are excited whenever healthy kittens are born in captivity. Hopefully the species will survive for a long time.
© 2012 Linda Crampton