Furry, funny and fascinating, the Pallas's cat (Otocolobus manul) is perhaps one of the most expressive felines in the world. Also known as the manul cat, these fluffy felines get their star quality from their repertoire of quirky facial expressions. Pallas's cats are found throughout Central Asia, with the largest populations thought to be in Mongolia and Russia, where they've long held a level of celebrity status — playing the role of mascot for the Moscow Zoo for over 30 years.
Pallas's cats, as well as an assortment of birds, mammals and plants, get their name from Peter Simon Pallas, a German zoologist who was the first to describe them. Pallas is known for his role in the first Russian Siberian expedition to survey the Russian Empire in the 18th century.
The Pallas's cats' famous expression appears cantankerous in part due to their flat faces, which have large, owl-like eyes with round pupils. Their bodies aren't actually as large as they appear, and aren't as big as one might expect of a wildcat. Under all that grayish-brown fur, the longest and densest in the feline world, they're about the size of an average house cat. So why all that fluff? It's less about size and more about having a camouflaged winter parka — the abundance of long fur helps them stay warm in the frigid temperatures of their high-altitude habitat while keeping them hidden from deadly predators.
Pallas's cats are also known for their adorably small ears, which, it turns out, play a crucial part in their survival. Jim Sanderson, Ph.D., with the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, shares in an email interview, "Winter in the Asian steppe, especially at high latitudes in Mongolia and north into Russia and the windswept grasslands of Kazakhstan, can be brutally cold. Large ears like those of a jackrabbit give off a lot of body heat, an advantage in the hot desert like the Sonoran desert but a disadvantage in cold places. (Having) no ears would be best, but Pallas's cats must also listen for rodents, so they need ears. Evolution has produced the perfect compromise."
Where Do They Live?
Pallas's cats live throughout Central Asia, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, northern India, central China, Mongolia and southern Russia. They, of course, can't avoid encountering snow in these regions, but they prefer to stay in drier areas with less rainfall.
During the day, Pallas's cats lounge in dens they create in small caves, rock cracks and even under boulders. At dusk, they emerge to hunt, mostly searching for rodents such as pikas, birds, voles and hares. They're quite cautious animals, squatting low to the ground or behind rocks to blend in, a behavior which serves as both an advantage for sneaking up on prey as well as protection against predators. But once ready to pounce, they're quite aggressive.
In or out of their dens, Pallas's cats don't socialize much. Pat Bumstead from the International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC) says in an email interview, "As adults they are solitary. Youngsters live in family groups for up to a year after birth." So is it all the snarky attitude that keeps others away? Not at all, explains Henderson: "All 33 species of small cats and six of seven big cats are solitary. Lions are the single exception."
Can You Have a Pallas's Cat as a Pet?
While many feline fans would love to have such a curiously cute furball join their home, the Pallas's cat isn't suited for domestic life. Not only are they solitary, wild animals built to hunt, their health can be in serious jeopardy when removed from their high-altitude habitat. Pallas's cats have a specialized immune system that allows them to thrive in high altitudes, but it's not built to fight the increased number of bacteria and viruses found in lower areas, ultimately causing a high mortality rate in captivity.
Threats and Conservation
Bumstead says, "The main threat to Pallas's cats is being hunted and killed by humans for their fur and meat." Sanderson goes on to add, "Pallas's cat fur is made into coats, hats and gloves, as well as other accessories. Their meat is eaten by people, and their fat is used for cooking. Winter is when most Pallas's cats are killed because their winter fur is thickest, and they have the most fat due to extreme cold. It can be -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius), yet the cats are out hunting rodents. Because they live in open grassland habitats, local people can easily find and kill them."
Given the dangers of placing the Pallas's cats in lower altitude habitats, conservation is a bit tricky in comparison with many other near-threatened animals. They're not placed in zoos or other rehabilitation programs as often, so the typical captive breeding approach doesn't increase the population very much.
Scientists and wildcat conservation societies continue to do research to better understand and protect the Pallas's cat. Even if you aren't able to trek to high altitudes in Asia to see one or find one of these fluffy furballs in a zoo, you can still enjoy a treasure trove of online photos of their beautifully grumpy expressions.