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The Pallas Cat (Octolobus manul) is a small wildcat that can be found on the steppes and grasslands of Central Asia. Also called the manul, it was originally classified as Felis manul by a German naturalist (Peter Simon Pallas) in 1776. After genetic studies and examination of the skull, the genus Octolobus was determined to be monotypic. It's believed that the Pallas Cat shared a common ancestor with the Leopard Cat, diverging about 5.19 million years ago.
Pallas Cats appear to be larger and heavier in photographs than they actually are, due to their dense coats. They're actually approximately the size of a domestic cat, measuring up to 26 inches (65 cm) in body length with a 12-inch (31 cm) tail. They weigh only about 10 pounds (4.5 Kg). They go through two major color phases depending on the time of year. In the winter, their coats are more gray and uniform in color, without the stripes and more ochre color of their summer coats. Their legs are proportionally short, and their heads appear flat because of their wide-set ears and eyes.
There are currently three recognized subspecies of Pallas Cat:
- Octolobus manul manul (Found in the northern part of the total range from the Jida River to eastern Siberia)
- Octolobus manul nigripecta (Indian Kashmir up to Tibet)
- Octolobus manul ferruginea (Found in the southwest part of the total range, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Turkestan, Iran, Transcaspia, Missanev, Kopet-Dag Mountains)
Pallas Cats are elusive, so it's difficult to know exactly where isolated populations can be found. They weren't documented in Iran until 2008, when they were caught by a camera trap, and it was only in 2012 that they were seen in the eastern Himalayas by the same means.
Pallas Cats are solitary and territorial, with both males and females marking their territories with scent. They are active during the late afternoon, spending their days in caves, rocky crevices, or abandoned marmot burrows. They prey on pikas, gerbils, partridges, voles and sometimes young marmots. Pallas Cats are not fast runners, and their preferred method of hunting is to stalk or ambush their prey, using rocky terrain or scrub for cover.
The mating season of the Pallas Cat is very short due to the extreme climate of the mountain steppes. Female Pallas Cats give birth to a litter of two to six kittens after a gestation period of 75 days, usually in April or May. It's possible that the relatively large litter sizes compensate for the high mortality rate among young Pallas Cats during their first year (and especially in their first 30 days). Kittens are born in sheltered dens lined with vegetation, fur and feathers. By four months, they are old enough to go hunting with their mother, and by six months they have reached their adult size.
The Pallas Cat has historically been hunted for its fur, but the practice has been drastically reduced since the 1980s. They are also killed in cases of mistaken identity, being taken for marmots which are commonly hunted. They are also caught in traps and snares intended for other animals. Hunting of Pallas Cats is prohibited in all of the countries that make up its range except for Mongolia, despite the fact that it is considered near threatened in that country.