Researchers have spotted one of the rarest and most elusive breeds of wild cat for the first time in more than 10 years.
Sand cats, scientifically known as Felis margarita, are notoriously difficult to find in the wild, but assistant scientist Shakeel Ahmed of Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency and several of his colleagues have collected at least 46 images of three of them in the United Arab Emirates, reports the Smithsonian.
The stealthy felines live in the deserts of central Asia, northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and have sand-colored coats that make for excellent camouflage as well as special foot pads that leave practically no footprints in the sand. Their natural instinct to hide from light, so it isn't particularly easy to track them down.
"They are a very sensitive species, and it's not easy to study them," Hessa Al Qahtani, head of conservation at Abu Dhabi's Al Ain Zoo, told The National. "They are very tricky. They are very elusive."
With 33 Arabian sand cats, Al Ain Zoo has the largest captive population of them in the world. Al Qahtani said no one has accurate information about how many of the creatures are in the wild.
"The finding of three cats is indeed important because it is going to tell us about the population size," she added.
No sand cats had been seen in the UAE for more than 10 years, and experts estimated in 2005 that there were fewer than 250 of them in the area, although researchers were unable to offer hard data on their existence until Ahmed and his colleagues stepped in and set up camera traps in March 2015, using canned cat food to bait them to approach the five motion-sensitive cameras.
Within a month, they had their first sighting and added four more cameras. By the end of 2015, they had 46 photos of two wild female sand cats and one male.
Because the animals are nocturnal and only come out of their dens at night to hunt, the majority of photos of them were taken at night, with 40 percent of them during the full moon.
Thanks to this work, scientists now have a lot more information to use when they study these creatures.
"It is clear that field research will all be extremely valuable in putting together conservation plans for the sand cats and their habitat, as well as pinpointing those areas and their extent that may be turned into protected areas to conserve the cats," John Newby of the Sahara Conservation Fund told New Scientist. "Scientists need to be doing more research on how the sand cats live in order to create a suitable protected area."