The caracal (Caracal caracal) /ˈkærəkæl/ is a medium-sized wild cat native to Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and arid areas of Pakistan and northwestern India . It is characterised by a robust build, long legs, a short face, long tufted ears, and long canine teeth. Its coat is uniformly reddish tan or sandy, while the ventral parts are lighter with small reddish markings. It reaches 40–50 cm (16–20 in) at the shoulder and weighs 8–19 kg (18–42 lb). It was first scientifically described by German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1776. Three subspecies are recognised. Typically nocturnal, the caracal is highly secretive and difficult to observe. It is territorial, and lives mainly alone or in pairs. The caracal is a carnivore that typically preys upon small mammals, birds, and rodents. It can leap higher than 4 metres (12 ft) and catch birds in midair. It stalks its prey until it is within 5 m (16 ft) of it, after which it runs it down and kills its prey with a bite to the throat or to the back of the neck. Both sexes become sexually mature by the time they are one year old and breed throughout the year. Gestation lasts between two and three months, resulting in a litter of one to six kittens. Juveniles leave their mothers at the age of nine to ten months, though a few females stay back with their mothers. The average lifespan of captive caracals is nearly 16 years. Caracals were tamed and used for coursing in India, Persia and Egypt.
Felis caracal was the scientific name used by Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1776 who described a caracal skin from the Cape of Good Hope. In 1843, British zoologist John Edward Gray placed it in the genus Caracal. It is placed in the family Felidae and subfamily Felinae.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, several caracal specimens were described and proposed as subspecies. Since 2017, three subspecies are recognised as valid:
Results of a phylogenetic study indicates that the caracal and the African golden cat (Caracal aurata) diverged between 2.93 and 1.19 million years ago. These two species together with the serval (Leptailurus serval) form the Caracal lineage, which diverged between 11.56 and 6.66 million years ago. The ancestor of this lineage arrived in Africa between 8.5 and 5.6 million years ago.
The name 'caracal' was proposed by Georges Buffon in 1761 who referred to its Turkish name 'Karrah-kulak' or 'Kara-coulac', meaning 'cat with black ears'. The 'lynx' of the Greeks and Romans was most probably the caracal, and the name 'lynx' is sometimes still applied to it, but the present-day lynx proper is a separate genus.
The caracal is also known as desert lynx and Persian lynx.
Its name in the Tigrinya language is ጭክ ኣንበሳ (ch’ok anbessa), which means 'bearded lion'. In the Emirati Dialect of Arabic, its name is الوشق الصحراوي (alwashq alsahrawiu), translating directly to 'desert lynx'.
The caracal is a slender, moderately sized cat characterised by a robust build, a short face, long canine teeth, tufted ears, and long legs. It reaches nearly 40–50 cm (16–20 in) at the shoulder. The tan, bushy tail extends to the hocks. The caracal is sexually dimorphic; the females are smaller than the males in most bodily parameters.
The prominent facial features include the 4.5-cm-long black tufts on the ears, two black stripes from the forehead to the nose, the black outline of the mouth, the distinctive black facial markings, and the white patches surrounding the eyes and the mouth. The eyes appear to be narrowly open due to the lowered upper eyelid, probably an adaptation to shield the eyes from the sun's glare. The ear tufts may start drooping as the animal ages. The coat is uniformly reddish tan or sandy, though black caracals are also known. The underbelly and the insides of the legs are lighter, often with small reddish markings. The fur, soft, short, and dense, grows coarser in the summer. The ground hairs (the basal layer of hair covering the coat) are denser in winter than in summer. The length of the guard hairs (the hair extending above the ground hairs) can be up to 3 cm (1.2 in) long in winter, but shorten to 2 cm (0.8 in) in summer. These features indicate the onset of moulting in the hot season, typically in October and November. The hind legs are longer than the forelegs, so the body appears to be sloping downward from the rump.
Male caracals measure in head-to-body length 78–108 cm (31–43 in) and have 21–34 cm (8.3–13.4 in) long tails; 77 male caracals ranged in weight between 7.2 and 19 kg (16 and 42 lb). The head-to-body length of females is 71–102.9 cm (28.0–40.5 in) with a tail of 18–31.5 cm (7.1–12.4 in); 63 females ranged in weight between 7 and 15.9 kg (15 and 35 lb).
The caracal is often confused with a lynx, as both cats have tufted ears. However, a notable point of difference between the two is that Lynx species are spotted and blotched, while the caracal shows no such markings on the coat. The African golden cat has a similar build as the caracal's, but is darker and lacks the ear tufts. The sympatric serval can be distinguished from the caracal by the former's lack of ear tufts, white spots behind the ears, spotted coat, longer legs, longer tail, and smaller footprints.
The skull of the caracal is high and rounded, featuring large auditory bullae, a well-developed supraoccipital crest normal to the sagittal crest, and a strong lower jaw. The caracal has a total of 30 teeth; the dental formula is 22.214.171.124.1.2.1. The deciduous dentition is 126.96.36.199.2. The canines are up to 2 cm (0.8 in) long and sharp. The caracal lacks the second upper premolars, and the upper molars are diminutive. The large paws have four digits in the hind legs and five in the fore legs. The first digit of the fore leg remains above the ground and features the dewclaw. The sharp and retractile claws are larger but less curved in the hind legs.
In Africa, the caracal is widely distributed south of the Sahara, but considered rare in North Africa. In Asia, it occurs from the Arabian Peninsula, Middle East, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan to western India. It inhabits forests, savannas, marshy lowlands, semideserts, and scrub forests, but prefers dry areas with low rainfall and availability of cover. In montane habitats such as in the Ethiopian Highlands, it occurs up to an elevation of 3,000 m (9,800 ft).
In Ethiopia's Degua Tembien massif, they can be seen along roads, sometimes as roadkills.
In the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, a male caracal was recorded by camera traps in Jebel Hafeet National Park in the Al-Ain Region, Abu Dhabi in spring 2019, the first such record since the mid 1980s.
In Uzbekistan, caracals were recorded only in the desert regions of the Ustyurt Plateau and Kyzylkum Desert. Between 2000 and 2017, 15 individuals were sighted alive, and at least 11 were killed by herders.
The caracal is typically nocturnal (active at night), though some activity may be observed during the day as well. However, the cat is so secretive and difficult to observe that its activity at daytime might easily go unnoticed. A study in South Africa showed that caracals are most active when the air temperature drops below 20 °C (68 °F); activity typically ceases at higher temperatures. A solitary cat, the caracal mainly occurs alone or in pairs; the only groups seen are of mothers with their offspring. Females in oestrus temporarily pair with males. A territorial animal, the caracal marks rocks and vegetation in its territory with urine and probably with dung, which is not covered with soil. Claw scratching is prominent, and dung middens are typically not formed. In Israel, males are found to have territories averaging 220 km2 (85 sq mi), while that of females averaged 57 km2 (22 sq mi). The male territories vary from 270–1,116 km2 (104–431 sq mi) in Saudi Arabia. In Mountain Zebra National Park, the home ranges of females vary between 4.0 and 6.5 km2 (1.5 and 2.5 sq mi). These territories overlap extensively. The conspicuous ear tufts and the facial markings often serve as a method of visual communication; caracals have been observed interacting with each other by moving the head from side to side so that the tufts flicker rapidly. Like other cats, the caracal meows, growls, hisses, spits, and purrs.