Episode 146 – Black Footed Cat: A Prolific Predator

“… and today we’re talking about a predator so adorable, it rivals the pika-killing stoat in deadly cuteness.”

Predators come in all shapes and sizes, but a small size doesn’t necessarily mean an animal is a less effective hunter. And if you’re a rodent in the semi-desert plains of southern Africa, it’s a lesson you need to learn quickly, lest you be lunch for a tiny feline. The black-footed cat is smaller than a typical tabby, but it’s anything but tame. But hiding fierceness behind a pair of finely tuned night-vision goggles is one key to success in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 


  • Really looks like a typical spotted house cat. 
  • Same size, coloration, and cuteness levels
  • It has tawny fur (yellowish-brown) with black spots and stripes going across its face and body. Kinda looks like a regular cat with a cheetah or serval coat
  • It has black streaks running from the corners of their eyes and stripes lining their tail. 
  • True to their name, the soles of their feet are black or dark brown in color. 
  • It does have a relatively short tail and its body is a bit stockier than most domestic cats, making climbing difficult
  • Smallest wild cat in Africa

Measure Up!

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words “measure up” into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new measure up intro this week! That means we get to hear from an animal and Carlos has to guess what it is. 

  1. American Bobcat
  2. Jaguarundi
  3. Caracal
  4. Armadillo

Male Length

  • Males are slightly bigger than females with a length between 42.5 and 50 cm (16.7 and 19.7 in).
  • The black-footed cat was discovered in the South African desert of Karoo. How many years would it take for rain on the Karoo plains to rise to the length of the Black-Footed Cat?
  • Hint: The Karoo desert is considered a semi-desert and it supports a range of plant and animal life, including aloe, succulents, and flowering plants. 
  • 2 years of rainfall. Annual rainfall in Karoo is between 50 and 250 mm. 

Male Weight

  • They weigh between 1.6 and 2.45 kg (3.5 and 5.4 lb).
  • How many Sewelos, the second-largest raw diamond in the world, go into the weight of a black-footed cat?
  • Hint: The Sewelo was mined in Botswana, which has become known for responsible mining practices, amidst Africa’s dubious and often oppressive diamond trade and mining practices. The Diamond was purchased by the Louis Vuitton company for an unknown price, but it’s estimated that Sewelo could be worth around $50 million. 
  • 7 Sewelo’s. Sewelo is 352 grams or 12.39 oz.

Fast Facts

  • Diet: Small birds, rodents, and even the Cape hare, which is heavier than the cat.
    • Researchers tracked two cats for 622 hours
    • If they bring down larger mammals and birds, they’ll gorge themselves and then stash the kill in a hollow, covering it with sand.
    • They also ate insects like termites, grasshoppers, and moths
  • Behavior: 
    • Has a home range of up to six square miles
    • Has a litter of about two kittens
  • Range: This cat lives in southern Africa in countries like Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. It likes dry grasslands and savannas.

Facts with Friends: Black-footed Cat Conservation with Samantha Helle

Today we have a Facts with Friends segment from our friend Sam who is a biologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also co-founded Project Conservation, an organization that supports ongoing conservation research. Take it away Sam!

  • Black-footed cats are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and have a decreasing population.
  • The cats face several man-made threats, particularly due to farming and pest control.
  • Much of their territory is taken over as cattle grazing land. Overgrazing may disrupt their prey species which limits their food sources.
  • Measure to protect livestock with hunting dogs and predator poisoning can result in collateral damage among black-footed cats.
  • Some farmers also poison locust, which the cats may eat.
  • Conservation efforts like the Black-footed Cat Project and the Black-footed Cat Working Group are working to study and better understand the cat.
  • The cats are difficult to keep in captivity because of their specific environmental needs, but the Wuppertal Zoo in Germany has had some success in breeding the black-footed cat. 

Major Fact: A Prolific Predator

The black-footed cat is a tiny predator, about 200 of these little guys go into your average lion. But when it comes to wild cats, our little night stalker is the deadliest killer cat on the planet. Deadly how?

This deadliness accolade refers to their hunting success rate, which means the percent chance they have to catch prey they locate and expend energy to catch. Black-footed cats catch what they stalk 60 percent of the time. This is the best rate among cats with cheetahs coming in second at 58 percent. Leopards are at 38 percent, lions are at 25 percent, and tigers are only at 5 to 10 percent. Your own domestic tabby hits her target 32 percent of the time. 

Side note: 

  • Do you know the best hunting success rate of any animal?
  • Do you know the most prolific canine hunter?
    • African wild dogs hit their target up to 80 percent of the time, depending on pack size. 
    • Though they lose kills to larger predators constantly. So they eat quickly. In the words of Dr. Alan Grant, “you are alive when they start to eat you.”

So how are black-footed cats so deadly compared to much larger competitors?

Size and Environment

You tend to see lower success rates based on environment, prey size, and predator size. For instance, tigers are huge. They can only attack in quick bursts of speed before running out of energy so they need to get very close to prey to have success, which is hard to do when you’re 10 feet long and 400 lbs.

Animals like wolves and lions hunt very large prey which is difficult to take down every time. Polar bears struggle against environmental factors like nothing to hide behind and a quick getaway in the water for seals, their main food source. 

What Makes Them Deadly?

For black-footed cats, their nightly hunting grounds are huge compared to their little body. They can walk up to 20 miles in a single hunt. Among small wild cats, this is the largest hunting trek ever recorded. That’s like bear level hunting range.

They also have excellent night-vision and finely tuned hearing. Anything that moves in the dark may trigger this kitty’s radar senses. As cats are want to do, the BFC loves to eat small mammals, especially gerbils. But birds and arthropods like grasshoppers and scorpions are on the table too. Even this little cat has a pretty good size advantage against its prey. 

The cat’s small size, nocturnal lifestyle, and graceful movement make it hard to spot in the grasses and shrubs of its territory. When it spies potential prey, it’s able to quietly get extremely close while undetected. It’s spring-loaded limbs also allow it to pounce on prey with speed and power. It can even leap into the air and catch flushed birds with a high degree of success. 

Ending: So be a cat, hone your skills, and be jellicle like the black-footed cat here in LDT.


Thank you to Samantha Helle for helping us talk conservation. To hear more about her own conservation efforts, visit her on Twitter or check out her organization at ProjectConservationFund.org.

Thank you to Casy for creating our theme song. To hear more of Casy’s music search Casy Michelle on Youtube

Thank you to Brian for creating the episode art. See more of Brian’s art at xNamaru on Instagram or Twitter.