Arabian Sand Cat Spotted for First Time in a Decade

The rare, elusive animal is incredibly hard to see, let alone study.

Photo: A sand cat moves across its home turf. Credit: WikiMedia Commons/Payman sazesh

An Arabian sand cat (Felis margarita harrisoni) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been seen for the first time in 10 years, according to New Scientist.

The rare, secretive creature and expert nocturnal hunter is listed as "near threatened" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species.

A 2015 camera trap survey, and subsequent published study, by scientist Shakeel Ahmed, of The Environment Agency, resulted in dozens of photographs of three individuals.

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Sand cats live in desert environments of central and southwest Asia and North Africa. They can handle the hot and cold temperature swings of those settings and will even burrow into sand dunes to stay cool. They have fur on their foot pads, which means they don't leave good tracks in the sand. That makes even more difficult any attempts to study the elusive animal, which is simply very good at not being seen.

The animals look a lot like domestic cats and will weigh around 4 to 8 pounds. They stand about a foot tall and are around 3 feet long.

The rare animals are losing habitat as well as food sources.

"Scientists need to be doing more research on how the sand cats live in order to create a suitable protected area," the Sahara Conservation Fund's John Newby told New Scientist.

VIEW PHOTOS: High Hopes for Smithsonian Sand Cats Thor and Lulu

There's a new addition to Smithsonian National Zoo's Small Mammal House: a female sand cat named Lulu. She was brought in as a mate for the resident male Thor. The hope is that kittens will soon follow. Let's learn a bit about sand cats, starting with what they are, and then find out how the two are getting along.

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Here Thor says "Hello" in sand cat. As their name implies, sand cats live in deserts and are the only cats to live primarily in such environments. They live in deserts of Central and Southwest Asia, as well as those of North Africa. They're well suited to the hot and cold swings of temperature in the desert and will burrow into the sand to keep cool. Smithsonian researchers say they're tough animals to study, in part because their presence is hard to spot. They have fur on their foot pads and leave barely a trace in the desert sand.

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Here's Lulu striking a pose. (Hint; you can tell it's her from her oval-shaped face, compared to Thor, whose mug is a bit more horizontally inclined.) Early reports are that Lulu has already established herself as the more dominant and feisty of the two, while Thor is outgoing with zoo staff and is happy to try his best in training sessions.

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The cute cats are very active early in the morning, scooting around their enclosure and playing with their toys. Catch them at noon, though, and they're likely to be napping.

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Zoo staff say they help the cats keep up with their natural behaviors by hiding some of their food in puzzle feeders, as shown here. It keeps them busy remembering how to claw and dig at things to get a meal.

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If the stylish pair produces kittens, it will be the first experience of parenthood for either cat. Their introduction went "incredibly well," according to zoo staff. So there may well be babies in the offing! In fact, the zoo has recently separated Lulu from Thor, while veterinarians determine whether or not she is indeed pregnant. Thor's presence, say staff, could stress out Lulu if she's going to have kittens. Every little new kitten helps the species, too. Sand cats are currently listed as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species.

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