Caracal caracalcaracal

Geographic Range

Caracal caracal is distributed over much of Africa, Central Asia and southwestern Asia. North African populations are disappearing, but caracals are still abundant in other African regions. Their range limits are the Saharan desert and the equatorial forest belt of Western and Central Africa. In South Africa and Namibia, C. caracal is so numerous that it is exterminated as a nuisance animal. Asiatic populations are less dense than those of Africa and Asiatic populations are of greater concern. The historical range of caracals mirror that of cheetahs, and both coincide with the distribution of several small desert gazelles. There is little to no distribution overlap with their allies, African golden cats. However, their other allies, servals, share a notable portion of their range with caracals. Wildcats, Felis sylvestris, specifically the subspecies Felis silvestris lybica (African wildcats) and Felis silvestris ornata (Asian wildcats), share much of their range with caracals. (Breitenmoser, et al., 2008; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Habitat

Caracals occupy diverse habitats. Caracals are typically found in woodlands, thickets, and scrub forest, plains and rocky hills are also common habitats. They prefer edge habitats, especially forest/grassland transitions. They are found at elevations over 3000 meters in the mountains of Ethiopia. An arid climate with minimal foliage cover is preferred. Compared to servals, caracals can tolerate much drier conditions. However, they seldom inhabit deserts or tropical environments. In Asia, caracals are sometimes found in forests, which is uncommon in African populations. (Breitenmoser, et al., 2008; Kingdon, 2004; "Safari Club International", 2009; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Range elevation
    3,000 (high) m
    ft

Physical Description

Caracals have brown to red coats, with color varying among individuals. Females are typically lighter than males. Their undersides are white and, similar to African golden cats, are adorned with many small spots. The face has black markings on the whisker pads, around the eyes, above the eyes and faintly down the center of the head and nose. The trademark features of caracals are their elongated and black-tufted ears. The legs are relatively long and the hind legs are disproportionately tall and well muscled. The tail is short. Eye color varies from golden or copper to green or grey. Melanistic individuals have been reported, but are extremely rare. Juveniles differ in their shorter ear tufts and blue tinted eyes. Subspecies of C. caracal may not be distinguishable by phenotype. Females are smaller and at or below 13 kg, while males can be up to 20 kg. It is possible for a large female to weigh more than a small male. Although the tail is short, it still makes up a significant portion of the total body length. Tail length ranges from 18 cm (7 in) to 34 cm (13 in). Head and body length is measured from the nose to the base of the tail and ranges from 62 to 91 cm (about 24 in to 36 in). Even the smallest adult caracal is larger than most domestic cats. (Kingdon, 2004; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    8 to 19 kg
    17.62 to 41.85 lb
  • Range length
    80 to 125 cm
    31.50 to 49.21 in

Reproduction

Before mating begins, chemical signals in the female’s urine attract and notify the male of her readiness to mate. A distinctive “cough-like” mating call has also been reported as a method of attraction. There have been several different forms of mating systems observed for caracals. When a female is being courted by multiple males, the group may fight to mate with her or she may choose her mates, preferring older and larger males to younger and smaller males. Mating may occur with multiple individuals over the course of about a week. When a female chooses a mate, the pair may move together for up to four days, during which copulation occurs multiple times. Female caracals assume a lordotic position and copulation lasts for less than five minutes on average. Females almost always copulate with more than one male. Infanticide by males has been observed. This may be to induce ovulation in a female undergoing lactational amenorrhea. (Bernard and Stuart, 1987; Kingdon, 2004; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Although both sexes are sexually mature at 7 to 10 months, the earliest successful copulation will occur around 14 to 15 months of age. Some biologists believe that sexual maturity is indicated by a body mass of 7 to 9 kg. Females exhibit estrous behaviors for 3 to 6 days but the cycle actually lasts twice as long. A female may go into estrus at any time during the year. One hypothesis to explain the breeding habits of C. caracal is the “use” of an opportunistic strategy. This strategy is controlled by the female’s nutritional status. When a female is experiencing pinnacle nutrition (which will vary by range), she will go into estrus. This explains peak birth timing between October and February in some regions. A female cannot have more than one litter per year because of the parental investment involved and the lack of post partum estrus. Gestation lasts between 68 and 81 days, and the female will give birth to 1 to as many as 6 kittens. In the wild, generally no more than 3 kits are born, while in captivity, the number is more likely to be higher, rarely as many as 6. (Bernard and Stuart, 1987; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Breeding interval
    Caracals breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Caracals are capable of mating at any time of the year, but often do between August and December so that young are born in the summer.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 6
  • Average number of offspring
    3
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    68 to 81 days
  • Range weaning age
    4 to 6 months
  • Range time to independence
    9 to 10 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    7 to 10 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    7 to 10 months

Parental investment in caracals plays a large role in greater reproductive behavior. The time a mother spends with her kits (and the combined lack of post partum estrus) restricts females to one litter per year. Once the young are conceived, males play no role in their direct or indirect care. Females invest a great deal of time and energy into their young. A tree cavity, cave, or abandoned burrow is often chosen for parturition and the first four weeks of postnatal development. After the first month, a mother may move her young continuously. Around this time, kittens begin to play and eat meat. Nursing continues until the kittens are around 15 weeks of age, but true independence does not take place for another 5 to 6 months. (Bernard and Stuart, 1987; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Reliable longevity data for wild Caracal caracal individuals has not been reported. As in other felids, captive individuals can live significantly longer than wild relatives if well cared for. Captive C. caracal can live to be around 20 years old. The maximum captive longevity reported was 20.3 years for a wild-born female raised in captivity. (de Magalhaes, et al., 2009)

Behavior

Caracals are solitary, except for the duration of mating and rearing of kits. Both sexes are territorial and maintain an active home range. Although primarily nocturnal, caracals can be seen during the day, especially in undisturbed regions. Though they are terrestrial, they are also skilled climbers with tenacious attitudes. A single caracal has been known to chase off predators up to twice its size. Hunting time is usually determined by the activity of prey, but C. caracal is most often seen hunting at night. (Grzimek, et al., 2003; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Range territory size
    4 to 316 km^2

Home Range

Caracals actively maintain a rather large home range for their relatively small size. Climate, region, and sex all influence the size of an individual’s home range. The home range of a male is typically twice that of a female. Home range size is also influenced by the availability of water. In regions with an arid climate, a home range of much greater area is maintained. In parts of Africa the territory of a male ranges from 31 to 65 km sq. Females in the same region will maintain a range of 4 to 31 km sq. In parts of Asia, males commonly maintain home ranges of 200 km sq. to over 300 km sq. There is a sex difference in the exclusivity of defended territories. A male’s territory may overlap with the ranges of several other males, while a female defends her entire territory for her individual use. (Breitenmoser, et al., 2008; Grzimek, et al., 2003; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Communication and Perception

A thorough study of communication in caracals has never been carried out. Most of information comes from individuals kept in captivity. Like other felids, caracals have well-developed senses of hearing and sight. Although servals are noted for their incredible hearing, caracals can also detect small prey by sound alone. Once prey are detected, keen eyesight is used to narrow in on the target. The exact function of the ear tufts on C. caracal is unknown. However, some zookeepers speculate that they may be used in intraspecies communication. If this were the case, this social communication would be limited by the solitary nature of the animal. In captivity, caracals are known for their grating vocalizations. These cats communicate with a series of growls, spits, hisses and meows. Tactile communication, such as sparring and huddling, has been observed during mating periods. A potential mate is attracted by olfactory cues. Hormonal changes in the female result in a change in urine composition. When the female is ready to mate, she deposits her scent in various locations to attract males. Males may then perceive the scent through the vomeronasal organ. (Winger, 2005)

Food Habits

Similar to all other species in the family Felidae, caracals are strict carnivores. The bulk of the diet is made up of hyraxes, hares, rodents, antelopes, small monkeys, and birds. Doves and partridge in particular, are seasonally important. Mountain reedbucks, Dorcas gazelles, Kori bustards, mountain gazelles, gerenuks and Sharpe’s grysboks are specific examples of what caracals might hunt. Caracals consume some reptiles, although this is not a common component of the diet. The staple components of the diet vary with geography. For example, an individual in Africa might consume larger animals such as ungulates, while an Asian cat might consume only small vertebrates, such as rodents. Livestock are sometimes hunted as well. Although caracals are known for their spectacular, bird-snaring leaps, mammals make up over half of their diet in all ranges. Unique among cats of their size, caracals can take down prey two to three times their mass. Small prey such as hyraxes are killed with a bite to the nape, while large prey, such as gazelles are killed with a suffocating throat bite. Prey are usually stalked to within a few long bounds, then captured when the caracal leaps using its disproportionately long and muscular back legs. Perhaps a result of its opportunistic appetite, caracals may engage in surplus killing. Unlike leopards, caracals rarely hoist their kill into trees. In undisturbed environments, caracals will instead scrape earth over an unfinished carcass and continually return to feed until it is gone. (Grzimek, et al., 2003; Kingdon, 2004; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • reptiles

Predation

Camouflage is a primary defense against predators. When threatened in their preferred, open habitats, caracals lie flat and their plain, brown coats act as instant camouflage. Agile climbing abilities also aid caracals in escaping larger predators such as lions and hyenas. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Though caracals are both predators and prey, their known predators (e.g., lions and hyenas) do not regularly hunt them. The greatest impact caracals have on ecosystems is as population control for prey species. Opportunistic feeders such as caracals consume whatever is most available and whatever requires the least amount of energy to catch and kill. This method of hunting plays a role in preventing prey species from becoming under or over-populated. In some regions, caracals are one of only a few species capable of killing certain types of prey. (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

In India and Persia, caracals were once trained to catch game birds and deer. By doing so, caracals provided both food and entertainment. Bushmeat and pelts in western and central Africa provide food and minor profit for locals. Luckily for caracals, their plain pelt is in very low demand. (Grzimek, et al., 2003)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pet trade
  • body parts are source of valuable material

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Predation on small livestock has resulted in extermination of thousands of caracals annually. This is especially the case in South Africa and Namibia, where predator control programs have been put in place. Even with various programs in place, caracals quickly recolonize farmland. (Grzimek, et al., 2003; Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002)

Conservation Status

Primary concern for caracals is habitat loss in northern, central, and western Africa and Asia. The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) lists Asian populations as Appendix I and all others as Appendix II. This means Asian populations may not be traded for any commercial reason, but trade involving scientific research is allowed. Appendix II dictates that trade of these animals will be controlled by authorization of permits in cases that will not detrimentally harm the species. ("The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora", 2009; Breitenmoser, et al., 2008)

Contributors

Lauren Phillips (author), Michigan State University, Barbara Lundrigan (editor, instructor), Michigan State University, Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Glossary

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5? N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Safari Club International. 2009. "Safari Club International" (On-line). Caracal - Species Detail. Accessed March 16, 2009 at http://www.scirecordbook.org/caracal/.

2009. "The Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora" (On-line). The CITES Appendices. Accessed March 22, 2009 at http://www.cites.org/eng/app/index.shtml.

Bernard, R., C. Stuart. 1987. Reproduction of the caracal Felis caracal from the Cape Province of South Africa. South African Journal of Zoology, 22/3: 177-182.

Breitenmoser, C., P. Henschel, E. Sogbohossou. 2008. "The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2008" (On-line). Caracal caracal. Accessed March 16, 2009 at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/3847.

Grzimek, B., N. Schlager, D. Olendorf. 2003. Caracal caracal. Pp. 387-388 in M Hutchins, D Klieman, V Geist, M McDade, eds. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 14, Mammals III, 2nd Edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

Kingdon, J. 2004. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Italy: Princeton University Press.

Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Winger, J. 2005. "Smithsonian Zoogoer" (On-line). At the Zoo: Caracals, A Black-Eared Mystery. Accessed April 16, 2009 at http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/2005/6/caracals.cfm.

de Magalhaes, J., A. Budovsky, G. Lehmann, J. Costa, Y. Li, V. Fraifeld, G. Church. 2009. "AnAge entry for Caracal caracal" (On-line). The Human Ageing Genomic Resources: online databases and tools for biogerontologists. Accessed March 20, 2009 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/entry.php?species=Caracal_caracal.