Although the scientific name is a bit repetitive (Caracal caracal), this wide spread felid has an interesting history. The first caracal was described by a German naturalist in 1776 using a specimen found quite close to home – Table Mountain.
The name ‘caracal’ is derived from Turkish words ‘kara kulak’ which means ‘black ear’ – a characteristic feature of caracals. Caracals have tufted black ears, uniform reddish-brown fur and slender bodies. Their long legs may have a few spots. Prominent facial markings run from the inner corner of the eyes to the nose.
These solitary, nocturnal hunters have a varied diet. Feeding on small to medium sized mammals (usually rodents and small antelope), these agile felines can also jump up to 3 meters in the air to snatch flying birds. Caracals consume only meat off their prey and will seldom eat bones. These animals are adapted well for arid regions as their water demands are met by the body fluids of their prey.
Caracals mate year round and female caracals give birth to a litter of 1 – 6 kittens in caves, tree cavities or burrows. Kittens venture out of their birth den at 1 month and stay with their mother for a year when they reach sexual maturity.
The IUCN classifies caracals as a species of least concern. However, they are threatened by agriculture. Caracals are thought to opportunistically hunt livestock and are persecuted by farmers. There are however ecologically sustainable methods to deter caracals from preying on livestock. For example, using Anatolian shepherds to protect the flock of sheep.
Closing off with some more historical facts, caracals had a cultural role in the life of ancient Egyptians. Caracals were found on wall paintings, their bodies embalmed and statues of caracals and other cats guarded ancient tombs. Caracals were also used in blood sports in India where a captive caracal would be set upon a flock of pigeons and bets were made to guess how many pigeons the caracal would ground.
Want to get involved with Caracal research and conservation? Check out Cape Leopard Trust’s wishlist.
Distribution in Egypt
Narrow (scattered records).
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.
Biogeographic Regions: palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native )
- Sunquist, M., F. Sunquist. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
- 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.
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.
Range mass: 8 to 19 kg.
Range length: 80 to 125 cm.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Habitat and Ecology
Home ranges are large in arid areas, with the home ranges of three males averaging 316.4 kmÂ² on Namibian ranchland (Marker and Dickman 2005). In Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 kmÂ² to 1,116 kmÂ² in different seasons (Van Heezik and Seddon 1998), while in an Israeli study, home ranges of males averaged 220.6 kmÂ² (Weisbein and Mendelssohn 1990). Male home ranges in better-watered environments of South Africa are smaller (two males averaged 26.9 kmÂ² in West Coast National Park: (Avenant and Nel 1998), and female ranges are considerably smaller than males (Stuart and Stuart in press).
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.
Range elevation: 3,000 (high) m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest ; mountains
- Kingdon, J. 2004. The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals. Italy: Princeton University Press.
- Safari Club International. 2009. "Safari Club International" (On-line). Caracal - Species Detail. Accessed March 16, 2009 at http://www.scirecordbook.org/caracal/.
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.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
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.
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.
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
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.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; acoustic
- 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.
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.
Status: captivity: 20.3 (high) years.
Status: wild: 12.0 years.
- 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.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
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.
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.
Range gestation period: 68 to 81 days.
Range birth mass: 198 to 250 g.
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.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); fertilization ; viviparous
Average number of offspring: 3.
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.
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)
- 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.
- 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.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Caracal caracal
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 1
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- 2002Least Concern
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.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix i; appendix ii
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
- 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.
Status in Egypt
In its north Africa, the caracal is considered threatened (Stuart and Stuart in press), and rare in the Central Asian republics and India (Nowell and Jackson 1996).
Habitat destruction (agriculture and desertification) is a significant threat in central, west, north and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed (Ray et al. 2005). It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range (Sunquist and Sunquist 2002).
Caracal are present in many large, and well-managed protected areas, across their vast range.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
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.
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.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; body parts are source of valuable material
The caracal // (Caracal caracal), also known as the desert lynx, is a wild cat widely distributed across Africa, central Asia, and southwest Asia into India. In 2002, the IUCN listed the caracal as Least Concern, as it is widespread and relatively common. The felid is considered threatened in North Africa, and rare in the central Asian republics and India.
German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber first described Felis caracal in 1776 from a specimen collected from Table Mountain, South Africa, which is considered the type locality of the species. The generic name Caracal was first used by the British naturalist John Edward Gray in 1843 on the basis of a type specimen collected near the Cape of Good Hope.
The caracal is distinguished from Felis by the presence of a long tuft on the tip of the ears, exceeding half their length. No trace of pattern remains in the coat, except a few spots on the underside and inside of the fore legs. It is a slender, long-legged cat of medium size with a relatively short tail. The fur on the back and sides is generally of a uniform tawny grey or reddish, frosted-sand colour. The belly and the undersides of the legs and chest are whitish and spotted or blotched with pale markings. The tufted ears are black-backed. Black caracals also occur. The skull is high and rounded. The jaw is short, stoutly built, and equipped with large, powerful teeth. About 92% of caracals lack the second upper premolar teeth. Males reach a head and body length of 75 to 105.7 cm (29.5 to 41.6 in), with a 23.1- to 34-cm-long tail, and weigh 8.0 to 20 kg (17.6 to 44.1 lb). Females are smaller with a head and body length of 69 to 102.9 cm (27.2 to 40.5 in) and a tail 19.5 to 34 cm (7.7 to 13.4 in) long. They weigh from 7.0 to 15.9 kg (15.4 to 35.1 lb).
Facial markings comprise a dark line running down the center of the forehead to near the nose, and another one running from the inner edge of the eye to the nostrils. The pupils of the eyes contract to form circles. A light-colored ring encircles the eyes, and a rather indistinct dark brown patch occurs over each eye. White patches occur on either side of the nose. The inner surface of the pinna is covered with small white hairs. Numerous stiff hairs emerge from between the pads and probably are an adaption for moving through soft sand.
Distribution and habitat
Caracals are common in parts of their sub-Saharan range, especially in South Africa and southern Namibia, where they expand into new, and recolonize vacant, areas. They occur at much lower densities in Central and West Africa, where the carnivore community is more diverse. They occupy a wide variety of habitats from semidesert to relatively open savanna and scrubland to moist woodland and thicket or evergreen and montane forest such as in the Western Cape of South Africa. They prefer drier woodland and savanna regions with lower rainfall and some cover. They also occur in the Saharan mountain ranges and semiarid woodlands. On the Arabian Peninsula, caracals occur throughout the mountain ranges and hilly steppe regions, but probably do not penetrate far into the great sand deserts of the interior.
The Caspian Sea, Ustyurt, and the Aral Sea constitute the northern distribution limit of caracals, which barely extends east of the Amu Darya. In Turkmenia, caracals were known from the coastal plains at the mouth of the Atrek River to the foothills of the Kopet-Dag, along the Tedzhen River, in the deserts along the Murghab River and east of the Kushka River. Their range extends southeastwards from Iran, through Pakistan and central India as far as Uttar Pradesh.
Distribution of subspecies
Subsequent to Schreber's first description of a caracal from South Africa, several subspecies were described, of which these are recognized today:
- C. c. caracal (Schreber, 1776) – inhabits South Africa
- C. c. nubicus (Fischer, 1829) – inhabits Nubia
- C. c. algira (Wagner, 1841) – ranges from Algeria through Tunesia to Morocco
- C. c. lucani (Rochebrune, 1885) – ranges from Angola to north of the Congo River basin
- C. c. schmitzi (Matschie, 1912) – ranges from the Dead Sea region through Syria and Pakistan to India
- C. c. poecilotis (Thomas and Hinton, 1921) – inhabits northern Nigeria
- C. c. damarensis (Roberts, 1926) – inhabits southwest Africa
- C. c. limpopoensis (Roberts, 1926) – inhabits Transvaal
Ecology and behaviour
Adult caracals are solitary, but have also been observed in pairs. They produce the usual range of sounds for cats, including growling, hissing, purring, and calling. Unusually, they also make a barking sound, which is possibly used as a warning. They scent mark their territory, leave faeces in visible locations, and mark territory by spraying urine onto bushes or logs, or raking it into the ground with their hind feet.
Their home ranges are large in arid areas. Three males averaged 316.4 km2 (122.2 sq mi) on Namibian ranchland. In northern Saudi Arabia, a radio-tracked male ranged over 270 to 1,116 km2 (104 to 431 sq mi) in different seasons. In an agricultural area in Israel's Negev Desert, male home ranges averaged 220.6 km2 (85.2 sq mi). Home range size was positively correlated with body weight, and negatively correlated with prey availability. Male home ranges overlapped substantially (50%), and typically included those of several females. Two dispersals were observed: a male migrated 60 to 90 km (37 to 56 mi) south before establishing a home range, whereas a female remained in the vicinity of her natal range, with her range partly overlapping that of her mother. Twenty caracals, several of them transients, were found to use an area of 100 km2 (39 sq mi) with some ranging outside this area, making for a relatively high local density despite the large home ranges. Male home ranges in better-watered environments of South Africa are smaller. In the West Coast National Park, South Africa, home ranges of two males averaged 26.9 km2 (10.4 sq mi), and those of three females 7.39 km2 (2.85 sq mi). Male home ranges overlapped completely with those of females, whereas female ranges overlapped between zero and 19%. Caracal were active by night and day, and significantly longer on nights colder than 20°C. Males moved more than twice the distance of females during an active period.
Caracals can survive without drinking for a long period—their water demand is satisfied with the body fluids of prey. They are known for their ability to capture birds by leaping 2 m (6.6 ft) or more into the air from a standing start. They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 5 m (16 ft) before suddenly sprinting. They kill smaller prey with a bite to the nape of the neck, and larger animals by biting the throat and then raking with their claws. They sometimes cover larger prey if they cannot consume the whole carcass in a single meal, and return to it later. Some have even been observed to hide carcasses in trees. They live mainly on prey smaller than 5 kg (11 lb), including hyraxes, springhares, gerbils, mice, and birds. They are capable of taking antelopes, including species such as mountain reedbuck, springbok, common duiker, and steenbok. Occasionally, they tackle adult goitered gazelle.
Reproduction and lifecycle
Mating occurs year round. In the Sahara, breeding is reported to occur primarily in midwinter. Estrus lasts 5–6 days. Females copulate with several males in a "pecking order" which is related to the age and size of the male. One female was found to have mated with three different males during every estrous period, each time the same individuals in the same sequence. In some areas, males have been observed to fight aggressively for access to females and to remain with one for several days to guard against rivals; in others, they appear to be less protective. Copulation can last from 90 seconds to 10 minutes.
Gestation lasts from 69 to 81 days, and litter size ranges from one to six kittens. Females use caves, tree cavities, or burrows as shelter when giving birth. Newborn kittens weigh 198 to 250 g (7.0 to 8.8 oz), and open their eyes between four and 10 days of age. Kittens venture outside the birthing den at around one month of age. Their deciduous teeth are fully developed at the age of 50 days. They are weaned at about 10 weeks. At around four or five months, the canine teeth appear, with the others following over the next six months. The young stay with their mother for up to one year, when they start to reach sexual maturity. In captivity, they have lived to be 16 years old.
Habitat destruction due to agriculture and desertification is a significant threat in central, west, north, and northeast Africa where caracals are naturally sparsely distributed. It is also likely to be the main threat in the Asian part of its range. As caracals are capable of taking small domestic livestock, they are often subject to persecution. Severity of depredation appears to be dependent on the availability of wild prey and husbandry techniques.
In Iran, the killing of small livestock has brought the caracal into serious conflict with local people, who sometimes make efforts to eradicate it. The cat has never been recorded to be killed in road incidents, and no severe poaching pressure on it appears to happen.
Populations in Asian range states are included in CITES Appendix I; populations in African range states are included in Appendix II. Hunting of the species is prohibited in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. In sub-Saharan Africa, the caracal is protected from hunting in about half of its range states. In Namibia and South Africa, the caracal is classified as a "problem animal", which permits landowners to kill the species without restriction; nonetheless, caracal have persisted and remain widespread.
The word 'caracal' is derived from the Turkish words kara kulak, which means "black ear". In Persian, the caracal is known as سیاهگوش siyāh-gōsh, also meaning "black ear". In North India, it is known as स्याहगोश syahgosh.
Caracals appear to have held some religious significance for the ancient Egyptians. They were found in wall paintings, their bodies embalmed, and sculptures of caracals and other cats guarded tombs.
Historically, caracals have been used in India for hunting and blood sports. A popular sport in India was to have a captive caracal set upon a flock of pigeons, whereupon bets were made on how many birds could be taken down by the cat. A practised caracal could ground as many as a dozen birds. Today, as well as in the past, caracals have occasionally been kept as exotic pets in Africa, India, North America, and elsewhere.
The Caracal Battalion is a unique combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. About two-thirds of the battalion soldiers are women and their main role is to prevent infiltration on the southern borders of Israel.
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