Caturday felid: the black-footed cat

March 19, 2011 • 4:42 am

The black-footed cat, Felis nigripes, lives in the grasslands of southern Africa, and is a nocturnal hunter. It’s one of the smallest of all wild cats, weighing only between 2 to 5 pounds, and it’s rare.  Although hunting them is forbidden in the wild, farmers still kill and poison them, and there are only 40 individuals in zoos.  Has anybody seen one?

Photo courtesy of Pixdaus Nature Photography

Here’s its range:

The cat gets its name from the bottoms of its paws, which are completely black. See?

They’re cute like housecats, but don’t forget that they’re also fierce hunters: the Feline Conservation Foundation reports that they can take prey, like hyrax, much larger than themselves.

The Black-Footed Cat Working Group notes this:

Black-footed cats are opportunistic hunters, feeding on 40 different vertebrate species. Their varied food spectrum comprises of rodents and shrews (55%), small birds (20%), large, soft-bodied insects, spiders, scorpions, small snakes and geckos.

They are capable of killing prey larger than itself, can catch birds in flight and jump up to 2 m distance and 1.4 m high.

The black-footed cat’s appetite is extraordinary. They are very successful hunters catching on average one vertebrate prey animal every 50 minutes. During the course of one night they eat prey amounting to one fifth of their own body mass. If their catch is too large to finish in one go, they hide it in their dens or even in aardvark digs and return hours later to continue feeding.


The excuse for posting these photos is the announcement that, for the first time, two black-footed cats were produced through in vitro fertilization. According to ZooBorns (where you can see more incredibly cute photos), sperm was taken from a male in Omaha in 2003, frozen, and then used in 2005 to to fertilize eggs from a female at the Audubon Center for the Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans.  These embryos were kept frozen for six years before being transplanted into a different female at the Audubon Center.  After two months of gestation, two male kittens were born on February 13 of this year.  Here are photos of mom and offspring:

The surrogate mom, Bijou, with her two sons:

Here’s the “anthill tiger” making a kill. It’s undoubtedly a setup shot, but does show the hunting technique:

35 thoughts on “Caturday felid: the black-footed cat

  1. Posted at 4:42am? You, sir, are either an insomniac or the earlybird of earlybirds.

    I believe Paris Hilton will find a way to keep one of these in her purse.

  2. I always wondered if house cats would succeed in the wild if they were truly all on their own. Here’s my answer.

    I love this blog, so many idle queries satisfied on the odd day here and there.

    Put a smile on my face and now I got my Saturday groove on, lol.

    1. Animal Planet did a show on the most prolific hunter of the feline species. They concluded it was the house cat, hunting over 1000 or 1100 species. I am sure they did not include this black footed cat, as the prey were pretty much the same and they appear to be pretty good hunters. Or maybe they just do not have the amount of prey available.

      I would think they are in the same category. The house cat did used to be wild, but it is said they domecticated them selves in Eygpt a couple 1000 years ago. I think our house cats are now a mixture of a a couple or few of these little cats.

  3. Glad to say I have seen two – one on the side of the road as I turned out of a farm driveway in S. Africa – caught in the lights it did a hunch and snarl with flattened ears, and took off. The other, seen in the same area, popped out of a termite mound in the early evening as I sat down next to it. It just vanished into the scrub like a drop of water on sand. One of the Afrikaans names is ‘miershooptier’ – ‘ant hill tiger’

    1. Are you kidding? Where do you think house cats come from? Domesticated tigers selectively bred to become smaller?

          1. Ah, nice. I thought it was just in Asia.

            I was talking to my wife about your earlier comment, and she reminded me that as much as I’m an enthusiast about science, in particular evolution, I’ve still got these blinders on for some things, and cats are one of those things. I’ve read so much about the domestication of dogs that I’ve never even thought of the history of cat domestication. It’s a complete blind spot. Definitely need to rectify that with some googling.

          2. I knew that there were many tiny wild cats but until recently could not find much info on them. Now that some are being used to breed with domestic cats and now this one. I wonder where are the wild black ones.

  4. Does seeing one in a zoo count? I got to observe a couple of these guys at the Cincinnati Zoo a few years ago. Absolutely stunning.

    Chris, they’re noticeably smaller than housecats, but even in captivity they’re clearly wild animals.

    (The irony is, I was invited on this zoo trip to be a responsible adult helping herd some young children, but when we got to the cathouse, it was the kids who had to herd me.)

  5. Wait, you have an animal called the black-footed cat, and your very first picture shows everything except its feet?

  6. I read some of the links and they say the Black-Footed Cat is very hard to keep in captivity. It gets sick in cold, or humidity and even then it is prone to kidney problems, poor thing.

    Reminds me of Jared Diamond’s discussion of what makes an animal a good candidate for domestication. I think we can say “tolerates a wide range of climates” to the list. Unfortunately, like so many other animals, this narrow range of tolerance means it’s easily threatened by habitat loss.

    1. Yep, a high degree of specialization can often be a good short-term survival strategy since it makes you very efficient in that environemnt, but often ends up being disastrous long-term since conditions rarely stay the same forever. Evolution, however, doesn’t look at long-term strategies.

  7. Gorgeous cats!

    As it turns out, Baihu is also a black-footed cat, though he’s a member of F. catus and not F. nigripes. (At least, I assume he is…it’s not like he’s ever had a DNA analysis or anything.)

    It’s curious, too, that all those examples of F. nigripes have hints of the tabby “M” on their foreheads. I suspect they’re closer-than-usual relations to F. silvestris lybica



    1. According to this site the black-footed cat is…

      …the rarest of the African felids. In the IUCN Red List it is listed as vulnerable. In the larger part of their range they are protected, but hunting them is prohibited only in Botswana and South Africa. The total effective population size is less than 10,000 mature breeding individuals. Due to loss of its prey base through habitat degradation by overgrazing, indirect persecution by poisoning and predator control the population is declining.

    2. It can sound a bit paradoxical, now that you mention it! Of course the Audubon society, like most wildlife orgs, was early onto the conservation bandwagon…

      Another way to look at it is that these cats control rodents (well, things in rodent-like niches, anyway) and birds & rodents often covet the same food sources…

  8. I have seen a feral house cat take a squirrel in my backyard. They behave just like a wild cat. A brief chase and then a bite on the back of the neck held until the squirrel is dead. I just wish they would eat the whole thing. The chunks they leave around soon smell real bad, especially when you hit them with a lawnmower.

    1. Not really – they eat a lot of rodents and small reptiles I believe. Unfortunately farmers in many parts of the cat’s range are ‘unreconstructed’

  9. I love their coats – I wish I could get one. I wonder if they’re domesticable despite their still excellent hunting instincts.

    1. The domesticated house cat is considered the fiercest hunter of the feline species, according to Animal Planet. They do still have their fierce hunting skills. However, I was told, they are better hunters when they do not have to hunt. I do not know how well they would do on their own. I had a cat that did not know what to do with a bird, these two used to attack her like Heckel & Jeckel in the back yard, until our other cat taught her to hunt. After that the yard was a ‘no fly zone’. I think she took out Heckel & Jeckel or they moved because I do not see them around any more. She even can catch humming birds. My two tabsters were quite the hunters. But one was lost for 4 weeks and she was a little skinny when I got her back they way she could hunt, she should have been fat.

  10. I’ve seen a couple of studies where well fed pet housecats killed large numbers of small animals, one or more per day. Feral house cats are very alert and quick to disappear when they see a human.

    I heard a seminar on feral housecats hunting in an area in California. They would concentrate on one species of mouse, and drive it to near extinction before switching to another species. Very much in opposition to the “prudent predator” hypothesis. The presenter had no explanation not did I at the time. Later I realized that the housecat was an exotic predator, not one which had coevolved as part of the local ecosystem.

  11. The Wuppertal Zoo has some since 1957 and seems to breed them with some success (at least they claim to do so).
    Living in Wuppertal, I’ve seen them quite often.
    Yet it is a shame, that their small cat house is an awfully poor condition.
    For the unlikely case, that I come to money, I should donate something for a new small cat house, I guess 😀

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