Cats have all the cool tricks. Around 40 cat species exist on this planet, and they all seem to have some sort of superpower: extreme speed, the strength and agility to attack and kill crocodilians in the water, the ability to thrive in the deep freeze of the Himalayas. But one thing most cats are great at is jumping. The caracal (Caracal caracal) is arguably the leader of the cat pack on this front, with the ability to snag a bird out of the air, no problem.
Caracals, or desert lynx, are small, solitary, nocturnal cats with reddish coloring, a white chin and underbelly and giant, black tufted ears – in fact, their name comes from the Turkish word for "black ears." Although their closest relatives are the serval and golden cat, they like different habitats than either of these felids. Caracals can be found in grasslands, woodlands and scrubland, steppes and desert throughout Africa, the Middle East, India and Central Asia. Existing somewhere in the middle of the food chain, they do well in arid landscapes but require a bit of cover to escape predators like lions and hyenas. Caracals can go long periods without water and eat whatever they can get their paws on – birds, monkeys, rodents, goats, you name it. When you're an opportunistic hunter, prey could be anywhere, so it helps to be fast, a great jumper, and able to climb after something that skitters up a tree.
Caracals Are Champion High Jumpers
The fastest and largest of the small African cats, caracals are high jump champions, snagging birds out of the air with their sharp claws.
"Caracals are notorious for being able to jump almost 3 meters (10 feet) into the air from a crouch position to catch their prey," says Tertius Kohn, a professor in the Department of Medical Bioscience at the University of the Western Cape, in an email. "For an animal that is the size of a beagle dog, that's not too bad."
Caracals are light and stout, with large quadriceps and calf muscles. Kohn has studied the muscle fiber of both caracals and lions, in comparison to that of humans.
"What makes them so powerful is that one of their muscle fibres can produce three times more power than that of a human equivalent fibre – the caracal shares this feature with lions," says Kohn. "Where a human muscle is primarily composed of slow twitch fibres, containing lots of mitochondria to provide endurance, the caracal has stacks of fast twitch fibres, but lacks mitochondria. Thus, it is a sprinter, and not an endurance animal."
According to Kohn, having these fast twitch muscles explains why cats have to stalk their prey and pounce quickly. Otherwise an antelope, whose muscles also contain fast twitch fibres, but have much more endurance in their muscles, would be able to outrun the predator.
Caracals Have Ears Like Satellites
Because caracals often find themselves in wide open spaces, if they can hear their prey, they can probably locate it with precision. Luckily, a caracal's ears are not only fabulous looking, they're also unbelievably sensitive.
Watching a caracal's ears at work, you notice they're always moving, like satellite dishes in a spy movie. A caracal ear contains three muscle groups – 20 muscles in all – to control each ear independently of the other. Although the tufted tips of the ears are useful in camouflaging the cat in long grass and are thought to be used by caracals for communicating with each other, they're also thought to direct sound into their ears.
Caracals and People
Hundreds of years ago, caracals were once domesticated in India and Persia as hunting animals, used to chase and kill birds, antelope and small mammals like foxes. They have been so widespread and their numbers so plentiful over their native range, they've been considered a pest species due to their taste for livestock.
The caracal is not legally protected in most of its range and is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. These days, caracals in central and southern Africa remain unprotected and their numbers relatively high, probably due to the extirpation of black-backed jackals, which prey upon them. Caracals are extremely adaptable and recolonize areas from which they've been removed relatively quickly and easily. They can tolerate the presence of people with relative ease, so long as the people don't mind losing a few chickens and goats.
While it is legal in some states to keep a caracal as a pet, it is not legal in other states or in some countries. And it's best to remember that a caracal, like any big cat, is a wild animal and domestication is not optimal for the cat and not generally advised. A caracal can eat up to 2 to 3 pounds (0.9 to 1.3 kilograms) of fresh meat per day and can be quite destructive to household furnishings.