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It is International Cat Day!  I should probably feature my beloved pets Sepia & Sumi, but, although I love them with all of my heart and never tire of their astonishing antics and loving personalities, I am not very good at photographing them (in real life, Sumi is the cutest person in the world, but in photos she always just looks like a squiggling black blob with scary needle teeth).

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Scary?

So, until I master cat photography, cat bios of my two little friends will have to wait, and today’s post whisks us off instead to the great inclement steppelands of Mongolia and Central Asia.  Here in the endless desolation is the habitat of nature’s grumpiest-looking cat, the irascible yet magnificent Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).  Pallas’ cats are almost the same size as housecats, however because they are lower to the ground and have incredibly long two-layer coats, they look like comically puffed-up owlcats.  The cats live in steppes, deserts, mountains, and scrub forest from Afghanistan through the Hindu Kush and Pakistan up into Russia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia (China).  They are solitary predators living on whatever birds, invertebrates, lizards, rodents, and other small mammals they can catch in their range. Pallas’ cats give birth to litters of 2-6 kittens and they live up to eleven years in captivity.

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Like all cats, Pallas’ cats are astonishingly adept predators, but the barrenness of their range, climate change, and habitat loss makes life chancy for even the most gifted hunters.  Additionally,  humankind has long overexploited the cats for their astonishingly warm fur.  The outer fur and the dense inner fur form an airtight insulation around the cats which keep the tiny creatures toasty even in the godforsaken peaks of the Hindu Kush or in Gobi desert winters.  Portions of the cats are also used by worthless dumbasses for ineffectual traditional medicine.  As you might gather, the species are not exactly doing great, but their range is so large and SO inhospitable that humans haven’t pushed them to the edge of extinction yet.

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For a long time, the Prospect Park Zoo had a pair of Pallas’ cats named Nicholas and Alexandra.  Nicholas looked pretty sweet–like a big furry gray marshmallow, but Alexandra looked like she ate the devil-cat from “Pet Semetary” for breakfast.  She liked to sit in her rocky enclosure and stare through the thick glass at the tamarin enclosure across the corridor.  If zoogoers got in her sightline, she would put her ears back (and they were tiny ears to begin with), and hurl herself at the glass hissing and clawing.  The effect was sort of like being attacked by Yul Brenner’s demonic disembodied head (if it were fat and covered with fur).   I once saw her clambering on the high granite boulders in her habitat and poor Nicholas jumped up to see what she was doing.  She hurled him off the 10 foot tall rocks (onto some other sharper, lower rocks) with nary a qualm, like a kid tossing his schoolbag on the floor.  Her casual ease with ultra-violence was chilling. For a while there was a video online which featured a solemn cat-loving child asking a Brooklyn zookeeper if Pallas’ cats could be kept as pets and the young zookeeper got a scared look and said “That, um, would be a really bad idea.”

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Apparently Pallas’ cats have trouble reproducing in captivity for some reason, but I have always hoped that Alexandra clawed a hole in causality and had kittens. Also, on International Cat Day I like to hold Sepia in my lap as she purrs happily (in my 98 degree bedroom) and imagine the wild Pallas’ cats leaping magestically through the high mountain peaks of the jagged mountains of Central Asia.  May it ever be so and may cats of all sorts ever flourish.

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The Gobi Desert

When I think of China, I tend to imagine coastal China or the Yangtze River valley—which is to say areas of tremendous human population density where neighbor lives smashed up against neighbor and black smokestacks belch poison smoke onto the churning masses.  Yet China is truly vast and parts of the nation are among the least densely populated places on Earth.  The great northwest deserts of China are a land of shifting sands, xeric scrubland, and nothingness. Yet the dry wasteland is home to one of the world’s rarest and fanciest leaping rodents.

The Long-eared Jerboa, Euchoreutes naso, is an insect-eating, long-jumping, mouse-like creature which lives in the deserts of China and Mongolia.  The animal’s habits are largely unknown–since it is a master of stealth and also since it lives in such an unforgiving and desolate regions where biologists are infrequent guests. The long-eared jerboa is sufficiently distinct that it is classified in its own genus and its own subfamily.  It is (self-evidently) notable for its long ears which it uses to hunt insects in the desert nights and to avoid predators.

The Long-eared Jerboa, (Euchoreutes naso)

The animal is lightweight with a mass of only 24 g (0.85 oz) to 38 g (1.3 oz) and its body is small, measuring from 70 mm (2.8 in) to 90 mm (3.5 in)—although its tail is just as long as its body so the whole creature measures up to 180 mm long (7 inches) if you count the tail.  Like other jerboas, this species probably excavate burrows where they rest during the day.  Because they are so enigmatic and poorly understood (and also so endearing), the long-eared jerboas are a kind of symbol of truly wild creatures and the little rodent was identified as one of the top-10 “focal species” in 2007 by the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project.

Andrewsarchus Skull at the American Museum of Natural History

In the summer of 1923, Kan Chuen Pao unearthed an enormous skull from the baking Gobi desert of Mongolia.  Pao was a member of a paleontology expedition led by Roy Chapman Andrews, a world famous explorer, adventurer, and naturalist who, during the course of his career, rose from being a janitor at the American Museum of Natural History to being its director.  The skull they found was an enigma—the creature was a mammal with immensely powerful jaws but blunt peg-like teeth. No substantial bones were found other than the skull sans jaw (nor have any further specimens ever been discovered). The skull was discovered in sediments deposited during the late Eocene, the sweltering summer epoch when most extant mammalian orders evolved, so it is probably 36 to 40 odd million years old.  Andrews was immediately of the opinion that it was a huge carnivore, but what sort of creature was it really?

A toothy hairy model of Andrewsarchus

The creature was named Andrewsarchus mongoliensis in honor of Adrews and his expedition.  Andrewsarchus may have been the largest mammalian carnivore ever (although short faced bears might have been larger).  The one skull, currently in New York, measures 83 cm (33 inches) long and 56 cm (22 inches)wide–which suggests the animal may have been 3.4 meters (11 feet) long and nearly 2 meters (6 feet) tall at the shoulders.  Such a creature could weigh more than 1000 kg (2200 lb).

A drawing of Andrewsarchus with a large ninja to explain scale (Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur)

But Adrewsarchus may not have been a carnivore:  ever since the beginning of the jazz age, Paleontologists have argued about the monster’s diet.  Andrewsarchus lived along the coast of the eastern Tethys Ocean, a sea which was dried out and destroyed when the Indian subcontinent barreled into Asia during the late Eocene/Early Oligocene.

A Delightful Andrewsarchus model/toy produced by Bullyland

Some scientists believe the creature was a hunter which captured the giant land animals of the time. Other scientists believe the animal was a scavenger which lived on the rotting carcasses of primitive whales and beached sea turtles.  Another group feels that the creature fed on huge beds of shellfish, and a final school holds that the animal was even larger than believed and was at least part-herbivore!

An unpainted model of an athletic hunting Andrewsarchus (as envisioned by Paleocraft)

The taxonomy of Andrewsarchus is equally confusing.  The great skull was initially classified as a giant creodont (an extinct order of alpha-predators which share an ancestor with today’s carnivore).  The first scientific paper about the creature by great paleontologist and…um, eugenicist, Henry Fairfield Osborn, states, “An outline sketch of the skull was sent in a letter to the Museum, from which Dr. W. D. Matthew immediately observed its real affinity to the primitive Creodonta of the family Mesonychidae.”

Later scientists have been less certain about lots of things than Osborn was and Andrewsarchus’ place in the mammalian family is now unclear.  A consensus is emerging that the great creature shared common ancestors with the artiodactyls (like hippos, deer, and pigs).  Perhaps its heritage provides insights into the link between the artiodactyls and their close (yet oh so distant) cousins the whales.

A digital Andrewsarchus pensively gnawing a bone beside the Eastern Tethys (from BBC’s “Walking with Beasts”)

Whatever the case is, these giant hoofed creatures with their immense powerful maws must have been amazing and terrifying to behold.  Their fate seems to have been sealed as the Tethys closed and the Gobi basin dried out, but, whenever I think of the harrowing deserts of Mongolia and China, I imagine their fearsome toothy spirits towering over the other strange ghosts of that haunted place.

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