Saturday, 27 January 2018

A morning on the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan: 1. Pallas’s Cat - a seriously fluffy cat on video

Last November, we had a great morning of wildlife on the grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau north of Ruoergai in Sichuan. We arrived at the site (altitude 3,535 metres or 11, 300 feet) just before dawn. Almost immediately saw a Pallas’s Cat in the beam of the spotlight. However, it soon moved away. As light began to reveal the grassland we could see Plateau Pikas dashing in and out of their burrows. After short walk we looked over an area of marshland where there was a family of Black-necked Cranes (Grus nigricollis), the same species we had seen in Bhutan in 2016. The light was very poor but I managed to take a couple of still photographs at the extreme range of the zoom lens.

Black-necked Cranes

After walking back towards the car with pikas running and snowfinches flitting around us, two Pallas’s Cats were seen on a ridge. These cats are said to be solitary so we assumed that the two we saw together were a mother and her well-grown offspring. While some of the party tried to get nearer—and quickly becoming aware of the shortness of breath occasioned by rushing uphill at that altitude—but without frightening the cats, I set up a tripod and camera to take some video as one of the cats moved along the ridge line. Even with extra weighting gusts of wind moved the tripod slightly. These cats are only the size of a large domestic moggy and do not appear that big on the screen but you will be able to see their incredibly thick winter coat (which they shed in summer), the very flat face characteristic of the species and the low-set ears. Their slinky movement along the ground can only be described as like that of a miniature snow-leopard.

So this video is like the dog that talked; remarkable for not that it talked well but that it talked at all.

Compared with other cats, the very short jaw has a set of premolar teeth missing. It is easy to see that these are ambush predators; nothing, not even their ears stand out from their outline. Pikas, their main prey on the plateau, must only be aware of them as they pounce.

In Mongolia, their distribution is said to depend on adequate cover since the cats are preyed upon by wolves and foxes. Perhaps it is not surprising that the site we were visiting, which is well-known amongst the cognoscenti, has a couple of small quarries in which the cats can hide and in which one of ours was seen to disappear from view.

They are animals of the steppes of Central Asia and have been recorded as high as 5,000 metres (these were at about 3,500 metres). Known as the Manul in Mongolia this cat was named Felis manul by Peter Paul Pallas (1741-1811) in 1776. Pallas was a Russian of German extraction employed by Catherine the Great as Professor of Natural History at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and to explore the geography and natural history of the outer regions of Russia. His expedition lasted from 1768 until 1774. Numerous mammals and birds are named after him.

Another Russian explorer and naturalist, Nikolai Alekseevich Severtzov (1827–1885), moved Pallas’s Cat out of the genus Felis because it was so different from the rest of the species in that genus. He put it in a new genus Otocolobus, named from the Greek meaning ears cut short (i.e docked or maimed). For decades it was usually still referred to as Felis manul until 1907 when Pocock at the British museum upheld Severtzov’s classification.

Molecular phylogenetic analysis indicates that it and an ancestor of the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), which we also saw on this trip at a lower altitude, diverged about 5.19 million years ago.

Pallas’s Cat is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN. It was hunted widely for its fur but the main threats are habitat loss, predation from the dogs used to guard herds against wolves (the Tibetan mastiffs used to guard the herds of domestic Yaks are huge) and the poisoning of their pika prey to improve the pasture for those Yaks.

Fortunately, these cats had not seen the recent BBC series Big Cats in which footage, claimed to be the first, of Pallas’s Cats in the wild was shown. There they were said to be highly elusive but ours were anything but.

More video from that morning on the Tibetan Plateau soon.