Today’s post is a guest post from Lora Orme, an undergraduate conducting directed research with us at the University of Minnesota.
Hailing from regions of Africa as well as India, the Middle East, and southwest Asia, the caracal prefers a dry habitat such as savanna or woodlands. This preference distinguishes the caracal from its feline cousin, the serval, which primarily lives in wetter climates. The difference encourages the caracal’s more open eating habits; the carnivorous caracal will hunt and consume almost any source of meat that is available, from rodents scurrying across the plains, to monkeys or birds overhead. In fact, the caracal is an expert bird hunter, using its powerful hind legs to leap up to ten feet in the air. That is twice as high as the height of the average human!
The caracal looks like a slightly overgrown housecat, around three feet long when full-grown. It has red-brown hair and very distinct facial markings. But the most distinguishing feature of the caracal is the ear tuft. These tassels of long black hair play an important role in pinpointing prey, working with 20 muscles within the ears themselves. The tufts may also act like little flags that help the caracal communicate with others of its kind. Visually, the tufts make a caracal resemble a lynx. For this and other similarities, the caracal has been nicknamed the “African lynx” or the “desert lynx.” It is important to discriminate, however, that the caracal has no spots or stripes, longer legs, and a slimmer body than the lynx. These characteristics allow the streamlined caracal to be among the fastest small cats.
Because of the caracal’s impressive agility, it was once bred in India as a status symbol and for the sport of bird hunting. Present day caracals are generally known to be elusive and secretive, camouflaging into tall grasses and quickly escaping from sight. However, if wild prey is scarce, caracals have been known to attack livestock and other domesticated animals. Due to the caracal’s natural tendency to hunt, they are sometimes considered pests and shot by ranchers.
Predatory instincts drive the caracal to live a solitary life when not mating. The majority of communication occurs in mews, hisses, and purrs with mates and kin. Even when a pair joins together to mate, the male does not stay to help raise the young. Thus, the female is left to watch over the litter of up to six kittens. She keeps them hidden in a burrow that has been borrowed from the den of an aardvark or porcupine. They stay hidden until they are one to two months of age and begin eating meat alongside their mother. Finally, when they reach about one year of age, they leave her side to begin lives and possibly families of their own.