Pallas’s cat may some of the grumpiest looking animals on the planet, but perhaps you would be too if you lived in the cold and arid environments they can be found in!
Although the Pallas’s cat looks to be fairly large, they are actually not much bigger than the average housecat, and their bulk is pretty much entirely their magnificent, silver-tipped fur. Characterised by naturalist Peter Pallas in 1776, it was once called the Manul Cat (Felis manul), but the more commonly used name now is the Pallas’s cat (Otocolobys manual), with the Latin name meaning ‘ugly eared’ (unfair, in my opinion, I think their ears are pretty cute!).
The Pallas’s cat is possibly the oldest living cat species. Like other members of the Felidae family, DNA analysis has revealed that modern Felids evolved out of Asia, in the late Miocene (23 – 5million years ago). The closest relative is the leopard cat, although the Pallas’s cat evolved away from this ancestor around 5.2 million years ago, and has changed very little since. The flat face, shorter jaw and fewer teeth places the Pallas’s cat into the Prionailurus, a genus of 4 species of small spotted cat, including the leopard cat, rusty spotted cat, fishing cat and the flat headed cat.
Cats on top of the world
Pallas’s cats can be found throughout central Asia, from Western Iran through to Western China, in a wide but very fragmented distribution. They are generally hard to find, and their past distribution is only really known through anecdotal reports. Excitingly a recent National Geographic survey found evidence of Pallas Cats on Mount Everest, in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal. Researchers collected environmental samples and DNA analysis of scat samples revealed that some of them belonged to the Pallas’s cat. Pika and Mountain Weasel DNA was also found in these scat samples, indicating the importance of these species as prey animals. Sagarmatha is a National Park, and the discovery of Pallas’s cat living in this area provides evidence for even more protection of the park. The Pallas’s cat joins other wonderful species like the Snow Leopard and Red Panda by making its home in the dramatic glaciers and valleys of Sagarmatha.
Pallas cats are mostly solitary and nocturnal, whiling away the days in caves and crevices, using scent to mark the boundaries of their territories. They are ambush hunters, stalking their prey, usually the small rodent the pika, using vegetation and the rocky terrain as cover. When surveying areas to locate potential Pallas’s cat habitat, the single biggest indicator is the presence of pika; if they’re in the area, there’s likely some cats around too. Radio collaring studies actually revealed that they use marmot dens to give birth and raise their young, using the dens to keep warm in the harsh, cold environment and as cover from predators.
Fortunately, Pallas’s cats are classified as least concern by the IUCN red list, with their numbers remaining pretty stable. However, in some parts of their range they are hunted for their fur, and large scale poisonings of their pika and vole prey are limiting their food resource, leading to population decreases in some areas. Mineral extraction, overgrazing and infrastructure development is on the rise throughout much of their range, threatening their habitat. Thanks to their solitary lifestyles, Pallas’s cats are particularly prone to infections thanks to their weak immune systems. In captivity, there is a particularly concerning trend of kittens being lost to the parasitic infection Toxoplasmosis.
Fortunately, despite these threats, the Pallas’s cat seems to be holding its own. Hunting for fur is prohibited in all of the range except Mongolia, and the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums has a species survival plan in place, with many individuals in captivity in zoos across the world, as an insurance for their wild counterparts. The Pallas Cat International Conservation Alliance is a charity designed entirely to tackle the conservation of the Pallas’s cat and its habitat. They aim to conduct more research in prime habitat to better understand and therefore conserve them. You can check out their work at About PICA – Pallas Cats.
Greenspan, E. and Giordano, A.J. (2021) ‘A rangewide distribution model for the Pallas’s cat: identifying potential new survey regions for an understudied small cat.’ Mammalia
Johnson, W.E. Eizirik, E. Pecon-Slattery, J. Murphy, W.J. Antunes, A. Teeling, E. and O’Brien, S.J. (2006) ‘The late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: a genetic assessment.’ Science.
Ross, S. Kamnitzer, R. Munkhtsog, B. and Harris, S. (2010) ‘Den-site selection is critical for Pallas’s cats.’ Canadian Journal of Zoology
Seimon, T.A. Lim, M. Nightingale, B. Elvin, S. Elmore, A. and Seimon, A. (2023) ‘First report of a Pallas’s cat in Sagarmatha National Park.’
MASSIVE THANK YOU TO RACHAEL DA SILVA FROM THE UK FOR THIS WRITE UP! PLEASE FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM AND HER WILDLIFE ARTWORK AT TILLY_MINT08