Monday, March 24, 2014

Recordings reveal secret lives of rare cat

Any owner of a domestic cat will tell you they are at their most vocal when they are desperate for attention, but one of their rare wild relatives could not be more different.

The Pallas cat, or manul, which inhabits grassland in the foothills of the Himalayas and steppes of Central Asia, was thought to live their lives almost completely silently.

But an experiment to eavesdrop on the creatures, which look like large domestic cats with short stocky legs, dense fur and a bushy tail, has shown that they only keep up this shy demeanour when humans are around.

Audio recordings of a pair of Pallas cats at the Highland Wildlife Park Kingussie, Cairngorms, have revealed that once humans move out of earshot they began chattering and calling to each other.

The researchers have now built up nearly 3,000 audio clips of the cats calling, growling, hissing and even courting each other which have revealed their rich and complex social life.

The scientists are now using the findings to develop a new breeding programme to help save the Pallas cat, which have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in the wild.

There are now thought to be only a few thousand of the cats left in the grasslands and steppes they inhabit in Mongolia, Nepal and Central Asia.

David Barclay, senior keeper of carnivores at the Highland Wildlife Park, who led the study, said they now believe their female cat is pregnant and could give birth within weeks.

He said: “The Pallas cat has largely been overshadowed by its larger relative the Snow Leopard, but they have been heavily hunted for their fur.

“We now have a European breeding programme but they are notoriously difficult to breed. The female is only is receptive for about 48 hours during the peak breeding season.

“Even if they get pregnant they are very sensitive and will often miscarry or kill their kittens if they are disturbed.

“Although no one has quite described them as the giant panda of the cat world, they are probably not far from it.

The kittens themselves are also extremely vulnerable to a parasite called toxoplasmosis which their mother can pass to them after birth.

Most litters are lost to this disease and few survive beyond a few weeks. At the Highland Wildlife Park, they have had only one kitten survive in the past three years.

Breeding Pallas cats is so difficult that in some zoos they have resorted to using artificial in an attempt to track the pregnancy more accurately.

Indeed, the problems faced by keepers compare to those faced by pandas, where the females are only in season for two days a year and often miscarry.

However, with the new recordings, keepers have been able to accurately pinpoint the moment when the Pallas cats mated and so help ensure the survival of the kittens.

They can now ensure that the female is not disturbed in the days before and after giving birth while also giving her treatment for toxoplasmosis in her food to ensure she does not infect her kittens.

Mr Barclay said: “We have learned quite a lot about these cats already from the recordings. For example both the male and female stopped eating for a few days about two to three weeks ago.

“When we listened to the recordings, there was a change in their calls and it seems this was them mating.

“They make quite a distinctive noise when mating as the male actually bites the female and the act itself is quite a painful experience for her.”

Mr Barclay and his colleagues now hope to use hidden cameras and microphones to build up a more detailed picture of the social life of Pallas cats.

The cats make a strange grunting and laughing noise when calling to each other in their enclosure.

Mr Barclay added: “We are hoping that the more we learn about these cats the more we can piece together their social lives and can care for them better.

“Like to they prefer to be alone most of the time or do they like to spend time together. We are hoping to unpick what each of the calls mean.”

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