Peter Pallas, the first describer of the Pallas' cat, or manul, erroneously suggested that this was the ancestor of the longhaired Persian breeds of domestic cats because of its long hair, stocky build, and flattened face. The hair on its belly and tail is nearly twice as long as on the top and sides. Like the snow leopard, this presumably helps keep the animal warm when it hunts on snow, cold rock, or frozen ground. The background color of its fur varies from gray in the north of its range to fox-red in some parts of the south, although grayish animals are also found in the south. The body is compact, with short legs marked with indistinct black bands and a thick short, black-tipped tail. Pallas' cats weigh between 4.5 and 10 pounds (2 to 4.5 kilograms). The ears are small, rounded, and set low on the sides of the head, an adaptation to hunting in open country where there is little cover.
There are three named subspecies: the nominate race, O. m. manul, from Mongolia, western China. and Russia is the smallest and rarest. The race from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and northern Iran, O. m. ferugineus, is reddish in color. The race from northern Pakistan, northern India, Tibet, Khazakstan, Kirgizstan, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan, and northern Nepal is referred to as O. m. nigripectus.
Pallas' cats are adapted to cold, arid environments and have a wide distribution through Central Asia but are relatively specialized in their habitat requirements. The small southern populations in Pakistan are isolated from the main population and occur in montane juniper steppe. The northern range ends where the steppes meet the coniferous taiga forest. They live at altitudes up to 4,800 meters but are prefer with flat, rolling steppe and south-facing slopes where steep snow does not accumulate. They have also been collected from the fringes of cultivated areas in China's Qinghai Province. See range map
Pallas' cats live in stony, alpine desert and grassland habitats and tend to avoid lowland sandy desert basins except along river courses. Exposed rock outcrops or expanses of talus are a strong characteristic of Pallas' cat habitat, in part because of the abundance of pikas in these locations. Pallas' cats den in small caves and rock crevices, hence their preference for talus slopes, and also take refuge in the burrows of marmots, foxes and badgers.
Diet: Unique among felids, Pallas' cats are an obligate feeder of pikas, a small mammal in the rabbit family. In the Lake Baikal region of Russia, pikas have been found to make up 89 % of their diet. In other regions where pikas aren't abundant, Pallas' cats consume more rodents.
Observations of Pallas' cats in the wild suggest that they are usually solitary animals. Pallas' cats are seasonal breeders, with most litters being born in April and May.
Their breeding cycle is so strongly linked to photoperiod that if their natural cycle is interrupted, they will not breed until the following year. Among felids, Pallas' cats have unusually large litters (six to eight cubs) that are born after a 74 to 75 day gestation. Females are sexually mature at one year, and longevity in captivity is at least 11.5 years.
They are generally crepuscular, being most frequently encountered at dusk or in early morning.
Although there has been little recent international trade, Pallas' cats have historically been hunted in large numbers for their fur. Western China's annual harvest (excluding Inner Mongolia and Manchuria) in the early 1950s was approximately 10,000 skins. Annual take in Mongolia during the early 1900s was reportedly as high as 50,000 skins per year. Between 1958 and 68, harvests averaged 6,500 animals annually, and in the mid-1970s, the annual harvest in Afghanistan was estimated to be 7,000. Harvests in the former Soviet Union declined during the 1970s, suggesting a decrease in abundance, as they also did in China during the 1970s and 80s prior to the extension of legal protection to the species. Mongolia became the principal exporter in the 1980s, with 9,185 skins exported in 1987 until hunting was prohibited in 1988 and exports essentially ceased. In recent years, Pallas' cats have disappeared from much of the Caspian region and from the easternmost parts of its range in China due to over-hunting.
Poisoning to control pika populations has taken place on a large scale in parts of the Russian Federation (southwest Transbaikalia, Tuvinskaya, Altai Mountains) where they are considered to be vectors for plague, and in parts of China (Qinghai, Gansu and Inner Mongolia) where they are considered competitors of domestic livestock for grass. As a result, Pallas' cats face shortages of prey in some areas as well as suffering threats from secondary poisoning.
At least in captivity, one critical issue involves this species' unique susceptibility to toxoplasmosis. In response, husbandry protocols are being developed to protect young from this fatal disease.
CITES regulates Pallas' cats as Appendix II species. They are not covered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but are protected by national legislation over most of their range. UCN considers their status insufficiently known. Described as being most abundant on the cold grasslands of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and the Tibetan Plateau, Pallas' cats occur widely but is common nowhere. Elsewhere the species is considered vulnerable to rare and uncommon, including in Afghanistan, Lakdakh, northern India, and Pakistan, and especially the small, isolated population in Baluchistan.
There is an international studbook for this species, and a PMP is being prepared to manage captive populations North America. The AZA Felid TAG recommends a target population of 100 individuals. Within the SSP, a plan is being put in place that will serve to maximize genetic variation within the captive population.