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The black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), also called small-spotted cat, is the smallest African cat and endemic to the southwestern arid zone of Southern Africa. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 2002, as the population is suspected to be declining due to bushmeat poaching of prey species, persecution, traffic accidents and predation by domestic animals.[1][2]

Black-footed cat
Zoo Wuppertal Schwarzfusskatze.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Felinae
Genus: Felis
F. nigripes
Binomial name
Felis nigripes
Burchell, 1824
Black-footedCat distribution.jpg
Distribution of the black-footed cat in 2016[1]


Felis nigripes was the scientific name proposed by William John Burchell in 1824 who described cat skins used by ethnic people for making cloaks.[3]Felis (Microfelis) nigripes thomasi was proposed as a subspecies by Guy C. Shortridge in 1931 who described skins collected in Griqualand West as being darker.[4] The existence of subspecies was questioned, as no geographical or ecological barriers between populations exist.[5]

Today, the black-footed cat is considered a monotypic species.[6]

The following cladogram shows the phylogenetic relationships of black-footed cat and other species within the Felis lineage.[7]


Domestic cat (F. catus)

European wildcat (F. silvestris)

African wildcat (F. lybica)

Chinese mountain cat (F. bieti)

Sand cat (F. margarita)

Black-footed cat (F. nigripes)

Jungle cat (F. chaus)


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).[2] 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 rounded 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 provide the animals with camouflage; the backs of their ears, however, are the same color as the background color of their fur. They have six mammae, and unlike other spotted cats, non-pigmented skin.[10]

Distribution and habitatEdit

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 behaviorEdit

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

Black-footed cats are solitary and strictly nocturnal animals, 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.[5]

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. 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 their solitary behavior changes is during breeding season, and among females with dependent kittens.[2][10]

A female roams in an average home range of 10 km2 (3.9 sq mi) in a year, and a resident male of 22 km2 (8.5 sq mi). The range of an adult male overlaps the ranges of one to four females.[2] On average, an adult 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 twelve 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. When close to each other, however, they use quieter purrs or gurgles, or hiss and growl if threatened.[10]

Diet and huntingEdit

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 also prey on northern black korhaan (Afrotis afraoides) and Cape hare (Lepus capensis), the latter being heavier than itself. Insects and spiders provide less than 1% of the prey mass consumed.[14][15] They occasionally scavenge lambs of springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis). They are unusually active hunters, killing up to fourteen 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 stalk slowly through tufts of vegetation. Less commonly, they wait outside rodent burrows, often with their eyes closed, but remaining alert for the slightest sound.[5] Black-footed cats have been observed to hide some of their captured prey for later feeding, rather than consuming it immediately.[14]

Reproduction and lifecycleEdit

Black-footed cats have lived for ten years in captivity. Females reach sexual maturity after eight to twelve 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 course of 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 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 (Pedetes capensis) populations and unsuitable farming practices. Distribution data indicate that the majority of protected areas may be too small to adequately conserve viable sub-populations.[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]

Field researchEdit

The Black-footed Cat Working Group carries out a research project at Benfontein Nature Reserve and Nuwejaarsfontein Farm near Kimberley, Northern Cape, 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 Victoria West area.[18]Camera traps are used in the research to monitor the behaviour of radio-collared black-footed cats, and their interaction with aardwolves (Proteles cristatus).[19]

In captivityEdit

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.[20] 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.[21]

A range of zoos have reported breeding successes, including the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo,[22] Fresno Chaffee Zoo,[23] the Brookfield Zoo[24] and Philadelphia Zoo.[25]

The Audubon Nature Institute' Center for Research of Endangered Species is working on advanced genetics involving cats.[26] In February 2011, a female kept there gave birth to two male kittens – the first black-footed cats 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.[27] 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.[28]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Sliwa, A.; Wilson, B.; Küsters, M. & Tordiffe, A. (2016). "Felis nigripes". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018-1. IUCN: e.T8542A50652196. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T8542A50652196.en.
  2. ^ a b c d Sliwa, A. (2004). "Home range size and social organization of black-footed cats (Felis nigripes)". Mammalian Biology. 69 (2): 96–107. doi:10.1078/1616-5047-00124.
  3. ^ Burchell, W. J. (1824). "Felis nigripes". Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa, Vol. II. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green. p. 592.
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  12. ^ Armstrong, J. (1977). "The development and hand-rearing of black-footed cats". In Eaton, R. L. (ed.). The World's cats; the proceedings of an International Symposium. Volume 3 (3). Oregon: Winston Wildlife Safari. pp. 71–80.
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  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[permanent dead link]. Black-footed Working Group, July 2010
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  24. ^ 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
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