Black-footed cat

Black-footed cat
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Felis
Species: F. nigripes
Binomial name
Felis nigripes[2]
Burchell, 1824

F. n. nigripes Burchell, 1824
F. n. thomasi Shortridge, 1931

Distribution of the black-footed cat

The black-footed cat, also called small-spotted cat (Felis nigripes), is the smallest African cat, and is endemic in the southwest arid zone of the southern African subregion. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 2002, as the population is suspected to decline due to bushmeat poaching, persecution, traffic accidents and predation by domestic animals.[1][3]



Jungle cat (F. chaus)

Black-footed cat (F. nigripes)

European wildcat (F. silvestris silvestris)

Sand cat (F. margarita)

African wildcat (F. silvestris lybica)

Domestic cat (F. catus)

The Felis lineage[4]

The black-footed cat is a member of the genus Felis.[2] The species was first described by English naturalist William John Burchell in his 1824 publication Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa.[5]

Two subspecies have been nominated:[6]

According to Shortridge's description, F. n. nigripes is smaller and paler than F. n. thomasi, but since specimens with characteristics of both assumed subspecies are found close to Kimberley in central South Africa, the existence of subspecies is questioned, as no geographical or ecological barriers to their ranges occur.[7]


Close-up of a black-footed cat at the Wuppertal Zoo

The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat in Africa and rivals the rusty-spotted cat as the world's smallest wild cat. Males reach a head-to-body length of 36.7 to 43.3 cm (14.4 to 17.0 in) with tails 16.4 to 19.8 cm (6.5 to 7.8 in) long. Females are smaller with a maximum head-to-body-length of 36.9 cm (14.5 in) and tails 12.6 to 17.0 cm (5.0 to 6.7 in) long.[8] Adult resident males weigh on average 1.9 kg (4.2 lb) and a maximum of 2.45 kg (5.4 lb). Adult resident females weigh on average 1.3 kg (2.9 lb) and a maximum of 1.65 kg (3.6 lb).[3] The shoulder height is about 25 cm (9.8 in).[9]

Despite its name, only the pads and underparts of the cat's feet are black. The cat has a stocky build with round ears, large eyes, and short black-tipped tail. The fur varies in color from cinnamon-buff to tawny, and is patterned with black or brown spots that merge to form rings on the legs, neck, and tail. These patterns help the animal camouflage. However, the back of their ears are the same color as the background color of their fur. They have six mammae and, unlike other species of spotted cats, non-pigmented skin.[10]

Distribution and habitat

The black-footed cat is endemic to southern Africa, and primarily found in South Africa, Namibia, marginally into Zimbabwe, and likely in extreme southern Angola. Only historical but no recent records exist in Botswana. It lives in dry, open savanna, grassland and karoo semidesert with shrub and tree cover at altitudes up to 2,000 m (6,600 ft), but not in the driest and sandiest parts of the Namib and Kalahari Deserts.[1] During the night, they need sparse shrub and tree covers to hunt but spend the daytime in burrows or empty termite mounds.[10][11]

Ecology and behavior

Adult black-footed cat resting
Black-footed cat in cover

Black-footed cats are solitary and strictly nocturnal, thus rarely seen. They spend the day resting in dense cover, in unoccupied burrows of springhares, porcupines, and aardvarks, or in hollow termite mounds. They emerge to hunt after sunset.[7]

They are typically found in dry, open habitat with some degree of vegetation cover. Apparently, they get all the moisture they need from their prey, but will drink water when available.[8]

Unlike most other cats, black-footed cats are poor climbers, and will generally ignore tree branches. Their stocky bodies and short tails are not conducive to tree-climbing.[12] They dig vigorously in the sand to extend or modify burrows for shelter.[10]

Black-footed cats are highly unsociable animals that seek refuge at the slightest disturbance. When cornered, they are known to defend themselves fiercely. Due to this habit and their courage, they are called miershooptier (anthill tiger in Afrikaans) in parts of the South African karoo, although they rarely use termite mounds for cover or for bearing their young. A San legend claims that a black-footed cat can kill a giraffe by piercing its jugular. This exaggeration is intended to emphasize the bravery and tenacity of the animal.[13] The only times this behavior differs is when it is time to breed or they are a female with dependent kittens.[3][10]

Within one year, a female covers an average range of 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi), a resident male 22 km2 (8.5 sq mi). The range of an adult male overlaps the ranges of one to four females.[3] On average, the animal travels 8 km (5.0 mi) per night in search of prey. The cats use scent marking throughout their ranges, with males spraying urine up to 12 times an hour. Other forms of scent marking include rubbing objects, raking with claws, and depositing faeces in visible locations. Their calls are louder than those of other cats of their size, presumably to allow them to call over relatively large distances. However, when close to each other, they use quieter purrs or gurgles, or hiss and growl if threatened.[10]

Diet and hunting

Captive black-footed cat with a mouse

Due to their small size, black-footed cats hunt mainly small prey species, such as rodents and small birds, but may also take the white-quilled bustard and the Cape hare, the latter heavier than itself. Insects and spiders provide less than 1% of the prey mass consumed.[14][15] They are unusually active hunters, killing up to 14 small animals in a night. Their energy requirements are very high, with about 250 g (9 oz) of prey per night consumed, which is about a sixth of its average body weight.[10]

Black-footed cats hunt mainly by stalking, rather than ambush, using the cover of darkness and all available traces of cover to approach their prey before the final pounce. They have been observed to hunt by moving swiftly to flush prey from cover, but also to slowly stalk through tufts of vegetation. Less commonly, they wait outside rodent burrows, often with their eyes closed, but remaining alert for the slightest sound.[7] In common with the big cats, but unlike most other small species, black-footed cats have been observed to hide some of their captured prey for later feeding, rather than consuming it immediately.[10][14]

Reproduction and lifecycle

Black-footed cats have lived for 10 years in captivity. Females reach sexual maturity after 8 to 12 months. They come into estrus for only one or two days at a time, and are receptive to mating for a few hours, requiring males to locate them quickly. Copulation occurs frequently during this period. Gestation lasts from 63 to 68 days. A litter consists usually of two kittens, but may vary from one to four young. Kittens weigh 60 to 84 g (2.1 to 3.0 oz) at birth. They are born blind and relatively helpless, although they are able to crawl about after just a few hours. They are able to walk within two weeks, begin taking solid food after about a month, and are fully weaned by two months of age.[16]

Females may have up to two litters during the spring, summer, and autumn. They rear their kittens in a burrow, moving them to new locations regularly after the first week. In general, kittens develop more rapidly than other similarly sized cats, quickly adapting them to a relatively hostile environment. They become independent by five months of age, but may remain within their mother's range.[10]


Known threats include methods of indiscriminate predator control, such as bait poisoning and steel-jaw traps, habitat deterioration from overgrazing, intraguild predation, diseases, declining springhare populations and unsuitable farming practices. Distribution data indicate that the majority of protected areas may be too small to adequately conserve a viable subpopulation.[1]


Felis nigripes is included on CITES Appendix I and protected by national legislation across most of its range. Hunting is banned in Botswana and South Africa.[1]

In situ research

The Black-footed Cat Working Group carries out a research project at Benfontein Nature Reserve and Nuwejaarsfontein Farm in central South Africa, where seven black-footed cats have been radio-collared. This project is part of a multidisciplinary effort to study the distribution, ecology, health, and reproduction of black-footed cats over an extended period.[17] In November 2012, this project was extended to Biesiesfontein Farm located in the Northern Cape Province.[18]

In captivity

Wuppertal Zoo acquired black-footed cats as long ago as 1957, and succeeded in breeding them in 1963. In 1993, the European Endangered Species Programme was formed to coordinate which animals are best suited for pairing to maintain genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding. The International Studbook for the black-footed cat is kept in the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany.[19] As of July 2011, detailed records exist for a total of 726 captive cats since 1964; worldwide, 74 individuals were kept in 23 institutions in Germany, United Arab Emirates, USA, UK, and South Africa.[20]

A range of zoos have reported breeding successes, including the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo,[21] Fresno Chaffee Zoo,[22] the Brookfield Zoo[23] and Philadelphia Zoo.[24]

The Audubon Nature Institute' Center for Research of Endangered Species is doing advanced genetics work with cats,[25] and in February 2011, a female kept there gave birth to two male kittens - the first of their species to be born as a result of in vitro fertilization using frozen and thawed sperm and frozen and thawed embryos. In 2003, the sperm was collected from a male and then frozen. It was later combined with an egg from a female, creating embryos in March 2005. Those embryos were frozen for almost six years before being thawed and transferred to a surrogate female in December 2010, which carried the embryos to term, resulting in the birth of the two kittens.[26] The same center reported that on 6 February 2012, a female black-footed cat kitten, Crystal, was born to a domestic cat surrogate after interspecies embryo transfer.[27]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Sliwa, A.; Wilson, B.; Küsters, M. & Tordiffe, A. (2016). "Felis nigripes". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature.
  2. 1 2 Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 536. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Sliwa, A. (2004). Home range size and social organization of black-footed cats (Felis nigripes). Mammalian Biology 69 (2): 96–107.
  4. Mattern, M.Y.; McLennan, D.A. (2000). "Phylogeny and speciation of felids". Cladistics. 16 (2): 232–53. doi:10.1111/j.1096-0031.2000.tb00354.x.
  5. Burchell, W.J. (1824). Vol. II. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green. p. 592.
  6. Skinner, J.D.; Chimimba, C.T. (2005). The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 405–408. ISBN 9780521844185.
  7. 1 2 3 Olbricht, G., Sliwa, A. (1997). In situ and ex situ observations and management of black-footed cats Felis nigripes. International Zoo Yearbook 35: 81–89.
  8. 1 2 Smithers, R.H.N. (1983). The mammals of the southern African subregion. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.
  9. Stuart, C. T., Wilson, V. J. (1988). The cats of southern Africa. Chipangali Wildlife Trust, Bulawayo.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Sunquist, M.; Sunquist, F. (2002). Wild cats of the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 76–82. ISBN 0-226-77999-8.
  11. Nowell, K. and Jackson, P. (1996) Wild Cats Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  12. Armstrong, J. (1977). The development and hand-rearing of black-footed cats. Pages 71–80 in: Eaton, R. L. The World's cats; the proceedings of an International Symposium. Volume 3 number 3. Winston Wildlife Safari, Oregon
  13. Sliwa, A. (2006). Atomic Kitten BBC Wildlife (November 2006): 36–40
  14. 1 2 Sliwa, A. (1994). "Black-footed cat studies in South Africa". Cat News. 20: 15–19.
  15. Sliwa, A. (2006). "Seasonal and sex-specific prey composition of black-footed cats Felis nigripes". Acta Theriologica. 51 (2): 195–204. doi:10.1007/BF03192671.
  16. Leyhausen, P., Tonkin, B. (1966). Breeding the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) in captivity. International Zoo Yearbook 6: 178–182
  17. Sliwa, A., Wilson, B., Lawrenz, A. (2010). Report on surveying and catching Black-footed cats (Felis nigripes) on Nuwejaarsfontein Farm / Benfontein Nature Reserve 4–20 July 2010. Black-footed Working Group, July 2010
  18. Sliwa, A., Wilson, B., Lamberski, N., Lawrenz, A. (2013). Report on surveying, catching and monitoring Black-footed cats (Felis nigripes) on Benfontein Nature Reserve, Nuwejaarsfontein Farm, and Biesiesfontein in 2012. Black-footed Working Group
  19. Olbricht, G., Schürer, U. (1994). International Studbook for the Black-footed Cat 1994. Zoologischer Garten der Stadt Wuppertal
  20. Stadler, A. (2011). International studbook for the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) Volume 15. Zoologischer Garten der Stadt Wuppertal, Wuppertal
  21. Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. (2012). Animal News Press Release 26 April 2011
  22. Condoian, L. (2011). General Meeting of the Board of Directors Archived 14 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine.. Fresno Chaffee Zoo Corporation, 9 June 2011.
  23. Chicago Zoological Society. (2012). Black-footed cats born - a first at Brookfield Zoo Archived 31 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Press Release 27 March 2012
  24. Kristie Rearick; South Jersey Times (8 June 2014). "Philadelphia Zoo visitors 'paws' to gush over Black-footed Cat kittens". Retrieved 10 June 2014.
  25. "WHERE CATS GLOW GREEN: WEIRD FELINE SCIENCE IN NEW ORLEANS", Adrianne Jeffries, November 6, 2013, The Verge
  26. Burnette, S. (2011). Rare cats born through amazing science at Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species. Audubon Nature Institute, Press release of 10 March 2011.
  27. Waller, M. (2012). - Audubon center in Algiers logs another breakthrough in genetic engineering of endangered cats New Orleans Net LLC, 13 March 2012

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