Typically nocturnal (active at night), the caracal is highly secretive and difficult to observe. Solitary and territorial, the caracal mainly lives alone or in pairs; the only groups seen are of mothers with their offspring. A carnivore, the caracal typically preys upon small mammals, birds and rodents. The caracal can leap higher than 3 metres (9.8 ft) and kill birds mid-air. It stalks its prey till it is within 5 metres (16 ft) of the prey, following which it runs after the prey. The prey is killed by a bite on the throat or the back of the neck. Both sexes become sexually mature by the time they are a year old. Breeding takes place throughout the year. Gestation lasts nearly two to three months, resulting in a litter of one to six kittens. Juveniles begin dispersing at nine to ten months, though a few females stay back with their mothers. The average lifespan of the caracal under captivity is nearly 16 years.
The caracal inhabits forests, savannas, marshy lowlands, semi-deserts and scrub forests. Although the Sahara Desert and the equatorial forests do not figure in its range, it occurs in several Saharan ranges. The caracal is categorised as Least Concern by the IUCN. A major threat to the survival of the caracal is habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and desertification. Caracal are often persecuted for killing small livestock. Caracal have been tamed and used for hunting since the time of the ancient Egyptians till as recently as the 20th century.
The caracal is a slender, moderately sized cat characterised by tufted ears black on the back, long canine teeth, a short face, long legs and a robust build. It reaches nearly 40–50 centimetres (16–20 in) at the shoulder; the head-and-body length is typically 78 centimetres (31 in) for males and 73 centimetres (29 in) for females. While males weigh 12–18 kilograms (26–40 lb), females weigh 8–13 kilograms (18–29 lb). The tan, bushy tail measures 26–34 centimetres (10–13 in), and extends to the hocks. The caracal is sexually dimorphic; the females are smaller than the males in most bodily parameters.
The prominent facial features include the 4.5 centimetres (1.8 in) long black tufts on the ears, two black stripes from the forehead to the nose, the black outline of the mouth, and the white patches surrounding the eyes and the mouth. The eyes appear to be narrowly open due to the lowered upper eyelid, probably an adaptation to shield the eyes from the sun's glare. The ear tufts may start drooping as the animal ages. The coat is uniformly reddish tan or sandy, though black caracals are also known. The underbelly and the insides of the legs are lighter, often with small reddish markings. The fur, soft, short and dense, grows coarser in the summer. The ground hairs (the basal layer of hair covering the coat) are denser in winter than in summer. The length of the guard hairs (the hair extending above the ground hairs) can be up to 3 centimetres (1.2 in) long in winter, but shorten to 2 centimetres (0.79 in) in summer. These features indicate the onset of moulting in the hot season, typically in October and November. The hindlegs are longer than the forelegs, so that the body appears to be sloping downward from the rump.
The caracal is often confused with the lynx, as both cats have tufted ears. However, a notable point of difference between the two is that the lynx is spotted and blotched, while the caracal shows no such markings on the coat. The African golden cat has a similar build as the caracal's, but is darker and lacks the ear tufts. The sympatric serval can be told apart from the caracal by the former's lack of ear tufts, white spots behind the ears, spotted coat, longer legs, longer tail and smaller footprints.
The skull of the caracal is high and rounded, featuring large auditory bullae, a well-developed supraoccipital crest normal to the sagittal crest, and a strong lower jaw. The caracal has a total of 30 teeth; the dental formula is 220.127.116.11.1.2.1. The deciduous dentition is 18.104.22.168.2. The striking canines are up to 2 centimetres (0.79 in) long, heavy and sharp; these are used to give the killing bite to the prey. The caracal lacks the second upper premolars, and the upper molars are diminutive. The large paws, similar to those of the cheetah, consist of four digits in the hindlegs and five in the forelegs. The first digit of the foreleg remains above the ground and features the dewclaw. The claws, sharp and retractable (able to be drawn in), are larger but less curved in the hindlegs.
Diet and Hunting Edit
A carnivore, the caracal typically preys upon small mammals, birds and rodents. Studies in South Africa have reported that the caracal prefers preying upon the Cape grysbok, the common duiker, sheep, goats, bush vlei rats, rock hyraxes, hare and birds. A study in western India showed that rodents comprise a significant portion of the diet. Caracal will feed from a variety of sources, but tend to focus on the most abundant one. Grasses and grapes are taken occasionally. Caracal are also notorious for attacking livestock. Mammals generally comprise at least 80 percent of the diet. Lizards, snakes and insects are infrequently eaten. The caracal rarely attacks human beings.
The speed and agility of the caracal makes it an efficient hunter; it is able to take down prey two to three times its size. The powerful hind legs allow the caracal to leap more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) into the air to catch birds on the wing. It can even twist and change its direction mid-air. Moreover, the caracal is an adroit climber. The caracal stalks its prey till it is within 5 metres (16 ft) of the prey, following which it can launch into a sprint. While large prey such as antelopes are killed by a throat bite, smaller prey are suffocated by a bite on the back of the neck. Kills are consumed immediately, and less commonly dragged to cover. The caracal will return to large kills if undisturbed. The caracal has been observed to begin feeding on antelope kills at the hind parts. It may scavenge at times, though this has not been frequently observed. The caracal often has to compete with foxes, wolves, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs and lions for prey.
Both sexes become sexually mature by the time they are a year old; production of gametes begins even earlier at seven to ten months. However, successful mating takes place only at 12 to 15 months. Breeding takes place throughout the year. Oestrus, one to three days long, recurs every two weeks unless the female is pregnant. Females in oestrus show a spike in urine-marking, and form temporary pairs with males. Mating has not been extensively studied; limited number of observations suggest that copulation, that lasts nearly four minutes on an average, begins with the male smelling the areas urine-marked by the female, who rolls on the ground. Following this he approaches and mounts the female. The pair separate after copulation.
Gestation lasts nearly two to three months, following which a litter consisting of one to six kittens is born. Births generally peak from October to February. Births take place in dense vegetation or deserted burrows of aardvark and porcupines. Kittens are born with their eyes and ears shut and the claws non-retractable (unable to be drawn inside); the coat resembles that of adults, but the abdomen is spotted. Eyes open by ten days, but it takes longer for the vision to become normal. The ears become erect and the claws become retractable by the third or the fourth week. Around the same time the kittens start roaming their birthplace, and start playing among themselves by the fifth or the sixth week. They begin taking solid food around the same time; they have to wait for nearly three months before they make their first kill. As the kittens start moving about by themselves, the mother starts shifting them everyday. All the milk teeth appear in 50 days, and permanent dentition is completed in 10 months. Juveniles begin dispersing at nine to ten months, though a few females stay back with their mothers. The average lifespan of the caracal under captivity is nearly 16 years.
Distribution and Habitat Edit
The caracal inhabits forests, savannas, marshy lowlands, semi-deserts and scrub forests. Dry areas with low rainfall and availability of cover are preferred. They occur at altitudes as high as 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) above the sea level in the Ethiopian Highlands. The caracal is widespread across the African continent, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Although the Sahara Desert and the equatorial forests do not figure in its range, the caracal occurs in the Saharan ranges of Atlas, Hoggar and Tassili to the northwest and the Aïr to the west. The range has diminished considerably in northern and western Africa.