Most cats look roughly the same. Lion or tabby, they’re lithe and lazy, elegant and a little bit arrogant. Which is to say, no one would ever mistake a cat for a monkey. Right?
Not quite. Pallas’s cat, also know as the manul (Otocolobus manul), is believed to have changed little over the last 10 million years. Weighing in at around 9 pounds it’s the size of a housecat but you probably wouldn’t mistake it for one. Its legs are short, it’s body stocky, its fur luxurious. In fact its pelt is so thick that it gives the animal a rotund look which, combined with its flattened face and small, low, rounded ears, sometimes causes people to mistake it for a monkey at first glance.
Could this be what all cats once looked like? It’s possible. Felines have evolved rapidly since modern species first appeared around 11 million years ago. Big cats like tigers branched off from the main group a million years later while the house cat only appeared about 6.5 million years ago. Cheetahs are even younger, with a record going back only about 5.5 million years.
Manuls are typical cats in a lot of ways. They hunt at twilight and at night. They’re solitary and shy, but ferocious when they need to be. They love to bask in the sun.
But in other ways they’re a breed apart. Just look at those eyes, for instance. The pupil is round, like a primate’s, not slit-like as in other felines. Their claws are short, their legs thick. Sadly, their immune systems are different too. Manuls succumb quickly to diseases that most other cats are resistant to. This is probably a byproduct of their relative isolation in the high mountains of India, Pakistan, Siberia, and western China, where until recently they were seldom exposed to outsiders.
Pallas’s cat is listed as “near-threatened” by the IUCN, but in reality so little is known of them in the wild that it’s hard to gauge how populations are really doing. Since they live at elevations up to 13,000 feet climate change is a growing threat, as is the wholesale poisoning of the rodents that make up their food supply. It seems that marmots and pikas are vectors for the fleas that carry bubonic plague, a problem in Central Asia.
Happily, trade in manul pelts has fallen dramatically over the last 30 years though. Conservation efforts are working. But more needs to be done if we want this odd monkey-cat to stick around for another millennium or two.