"We believe this was the first time researchers ever documented wild sand cat kittens in their African range," Grégory Breton, Panthera France's managing director, wrote in a blog post announcing the milestone.
He reports that the wide-eyed fuzzballs – likely on the order of six to eight weeks old – were picked up in the glare of his colleague Alexander Sliwa's spotlight at about 2am as the researchers and their driver were headed back to camp after hours of scouting for sand cats. While the kittens were too young to radio-collar, the team managed to collar a female sand cat spotted in the vicinity –quite possibly the litter's mother.
Breton and his colleagues with the Sand Cat Sahara Research Team have been surveying these small, pale, lightly striped felids in southern Morocco since 2013, and their study has documented nearly 30 individual cats and collared 13. The work – up against the sand cat's camouflage, crepuscular/nocturnal habits, and all-around elusiveness – is shedding important light on the little-known species, which inhabits desert wilds in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
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Sand cats may look like dainty little pet felines, but they're hardy as can be, enduring the desert's dramatic temperature swings by sheltering in burrows or beneath rocks and shrubs, and persisting in parched wastes by getting most of their moisture from prey.
Should these Moroccan kittens survive, they'll become adept stalkers (and digger-uppers) of mice, gerbils, jerboas and other rodents, plus small birds, lizards and snakes.
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