Weird & Wonderful Creatures: Manul

"Pallas's Cat." Photo Credit: Zweer de Bruin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr.

The manul (Otocolobus manul), or Pallas's cat, of central Asia has the densest, longest coat of any member of the cat family, a definite adaptation to its preferred habitat of cool climates.

The manul is primarily found in caves and burrows in the grasslands and shrublands of steppes and mountains in China, Russia, and Mongolia. It is also found more occasionally in Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, India, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan.

The manul is roughly the same size as a domesticated cat, but it looks larger because of its stocky build and fluffy coat, which changes color with the seasons, from a silvery gray in the winter to a more reddish-brown in warmer months. Its coat is lusher on the cat's underside than it is on top, probably also an adaptation to its habitat. The manul has two black stripes on either side of its flat face, black spots on top of its head, and black bands on its legs and tail. It has a cream-colored chin and throat.

The cat's coloration helps it to blend in among the rocks of its surroundings, as do the placement of its ears, which are lower on its head and rounder than those of other cats. These adaptations are crucial to its survival as an ambush hunter—it preys on pika, small rodents, and birds—and as protection from its predators, since it cannot run very fast.

One of the manul's other distinct features is that its eyes are round and its pupils constrict to dots, rather than slits, like many other small cats.

Manuls are solitary creatures with large territories to themselves, which can make them hard to find and which give them a reputation for being antisocial. Female manuls are only in heat for a day or two, offering only a short breeding period. They give birth to two to six kittens at a time, on average, which will be considered fully grown by six months. Manul litters are particularly susceptible to infections due to a poor immune system, which makes them notoriously difficult to breed to adulthood in captivity.

The manul, which can live up to six years in the wild and double that in captivity, is currently listed as near threatened, and scientists theorize their status will drop to vulnerable in the near future due to threats from humans. Long hunted for their beautiful coats and for their organs (used in traditional medicines), their numbers are dwindling, and some countries have reacted by restricting the trade of their furs. Mongolia, however, continues to allow their hunting. Additionally, the manul's habitat is being encroached upon for herding, mining, and infrastructure; their main food sourse, pika, are poisoned by farmers who consider them vermin; and the hunting of marmots (whose abadoned burrows manuls often inhabit) has contributed to fewer available places in which to raise their young.


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