May 22, 2022

Pallas’s Cat

Pallas’s Cat has the longest fur of any feline, which helps it survive in some of the world’s toughest environments. It is named after an intrepid Prussian naturalist.

Peter Simon Pallas
Peter Simon Pallas

Peter Simon Pallas was born in Berlin in September 1741.

His father was a renowned surgeon, and Pallas was initially set to follow in his footsteps. Studying medicine at the universities of Gottingen and Leibe, he attained his medical degree in 1760, at the age of only 19.

After his studies were complete, Pallas travelled around Europe, observing medical practices in different countries. He also indulged his real passion: natural science.

A fascination with the natural world was flourishing in Europe at this time, as scientists began to examine plants and animals more closely.

Carl Linnaeus
Carl Linnaeus

In 1735, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist with an interest in botany and zoology, expanded on existing systems for classifying living creatures. Known as ‘binomial nomenclature’, giving each animal two names to describe it, Linnaeus’ outlined his system in his influential book, ‘Systema Naturae’.

He would later be known as the father of modern taxonomy.

Another widely read work was ‘Histoire Naturelle’, compiled by French naturalist Comte de Buffon.
De Buffon’s undertaking was even more ambitious: an attempt to catalogue all living things, alongside discussions of geology, chemistry and physics.

The sprawling work would eventually run to 36 volumes. The first was published in 1749, the final 8 posthumously, by de Buffon’s peers.

'Miscellanea Zoologica' by Peter Pallas
‘Miscellanea Zoologica’ by Peter Pallas

Pallas read these works, and devoted a growing amount of time to studying the natural world. During his travels, he examined collections of plant and animal specimens.

Afterwards, he settled in The Hague and, to the chagrin of his father, abandoned medicine to work on his own natural history text.

Titled ‘Miscellanea Zoologica’, this summarised Pallas’ studies, and presented his own ideas to improve taxonomic classification. It also contained descriptions of several new animals that Pallas had found, overlooked in existing collections.

The book was published in 1766 to wide acclaim.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great

Pallas’s success brought him to the attention of Catherine II, Empress of Russia.

Catherine had assumed power in 1762, following a coup she had orchestrated against her husband, Peter III. Having cultivated strong relationships with the clergy and the army, both of which Peter had alienated, Catherine and her supporters had forced Peter to abdicate.

Assuming the throne, she brought a more modern style of rule to Russia.

An admirer of the Enlightenment, Catherine encouraged the arts and sciences, while also reforming the country’s bureaucracy. She was also a despot: the Russian underclass would remain disenfranchised, and she flexed Russia’s military muscle, seizing territory in modern day Poland and Alaska.

History would know her as ‘Catherine the Great’.

Diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769
Diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769

Natural science was among Catherine’s many interests, which led her to offer Pallas a prestigious position: professor at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences.

Pallas assumed the role in 1767. He immediately began to prepare a major undertaking.

A transit of Venus, where the planet could be observed crossing the disk of the sun, was set to occur in 1769. Pallas proposed a scientific expedition into the Russian wilderness to observe this rare event, which was eagerly anticipated across Europe (the same transit would also provide the impetus for James Cook’s famous journey to Australia and the southern oceans).

The trip would provide Pallas with the opportunity to study Russia’s plants and animals, and catalogue them using the latest methodology. Due to the size of the country, and its rudimentary pursuit of natural science, he thought it likely that many new species would be discovered.

The expedition would turn into an epic adventure.

Pallas's first Russian expeditions
Pallas’s first Russian expeditions

Pallas set out from St Petersburg on June 21, 1768.

His travelling group was not large. With him were several prominent students from the academy, an illustrator, an astronomer, a taxidermist to preserve specimens, a Captain from the Russian Army, and Pallas’s wife, who accompanied him on all of his expeditions.

The company took a month to reach Moscow, and then continued southeast, heading for the Caspian Sea. They explored Simbirsk, the Volga River, and the surrounding areas, Pallas taking voluminous notes.

The Caspian Sea
The Caspian Sea

Having reached the Caspian Sea, Pallas turned east to explore the Ural Mountains, commencing in 1769.

Going became tough. The terrain was difficult, roads were little more than cart tracks, the towns they passed through tiny and occasionally hostile.

The rural population were suspicious of outsiders. Catherine enjoyed strong support in Russia’s major cities, rather less in the country. She was still viewed as a usurper in some areas, a scientific expedition in her name sometimes brought an aggressive response.

Armed rebellion against her rule flared during Pallas’s expedition. During one of these uprisings, Pallas’s astronomer, Georg Lowitz, was seized by a mob and publicly hanged.

The rest of the party managed to escape.

Ural mountains in winter
Ural mountains in winter

Another obstacle was the weather, which was frequently harsh.

As Pallas explored the Urals, the expedition suffered through a particularly severe winter. Heavy snows fell, and it was so cold the mercury in Pallas’s thermometer froze solid. On another occasion, crossing a river, the group were forced to jump, from iceberg to iceberg.

They suffered through long, exhausting days. Trudging through heavy snow in frigid conditions, at the end to find inadequate accommodations and meagre rations.

When spring finally came, the heavy snowfall led to a dangerous melt, and flash flooding.

‘The expedition was a gruelling and battering experience.

 

The sheer physical exertion expanded in travelling overland for thousands of miles by horse exacted a toll: depression brought on by fatigue, illness, atmospheric chaos, and roads two feet deep in mud.

 

At the end of the expedition, as Pallas tells it, he was a grey-haired man of altered health, although yet only 33 years of age.’

 

– Robert C. Parker, Portland State University

But Pallas was vigorous and determined, and his expedition also brought exciting results.

A 'Pallasite' meteorite
A ‘Pallasite’ meteorite

As he suspected, Pallas was able to identify a number of new animal species. These included, a lizard, a viper, a squirrel, two types of bat, and several species of bird.

Pallas catalogued these carefully, and would assign scientific names to them using binomial nomenclature. Several of these species would eventually be named after him, in the common vernacular.

Among his other discoveries: a 680kg lump of metal Pallas was shown near Krasnoyarsk, in Sibera, that he determined was a new type of meteorite. This would also be named after him: the category is now known as a Pallasite.

Pallas compiled regular reports of his expedition and its findings, which he submitted to St Petersburg. These were published in instalments, in several volumes, beginning in 1771.

Pallas’s exploits were closely followed by Catherine and the scientific community, who were amazed by his discoveries. The expedition was so successful that, despite its hardships, Pallas extended it for a further two years.

He would remain in the field until 1774.

Pallas's Cat
Pallas’s Cat

Towards the end of his first expedition, while exploring the Dzhida River, southeast of Lake Baikal, Pallas came across one of his most surprising discoveries.

A new species of wild cat:

‘The form of this cat, and particularly the nature and colour of the hair, exhibited so extraordinary an appearance, that I was induced to give a representation of it.

 

It is of a middle size, has somewhat smaller legs than the common cat, and the head is longer towards the nose. The tail is thrice the length of the head.

 

The colour of the body is a light chestnut brown like that of the pole-cat, but blacker on the back, especially towards the tail, and paler along the sides and belly.’

 

– Peter Pallas, ‘Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire’

Struck by the animal’s huge tail, and fluffy coat, he did not quite know what to make of it. Pallas at first theorised it was the result of an escaped domestic cat, mating with a wild species, and speculated incorrectly it had evolved from the a Persian species.

But he had actually discovered one of the world’s most unusual wild animals.

Pallas's Cat
Pallas’s Cat: adapted for cold environments

Pallas’s Cat is about the same size as a large domestic breed, but looks much bigger.

The reason is its thick, coarse fur. Several centimetres in length, Pallas’s Cat has the longest fur of any cat species, including a particularly large, bushy tail. Their coat changes colour with the seasons, from silver-grey in winter, to tawny brown in the summer.

They also have a thick, stocky body, with powerful, short, legs. The cat has evolved these features in response to its preferred environment.

Pallas's Cat: distribution
Pallas’s Cat: distribution

Pallas’s Cat is widespread across central Asia, and can be found in Russia, Tibetan China, northern India and Nepal. Their numbers are most heavily concentrated in Mongolia.

The cat prefers remote areas far from civilisation, and can often be found in the rocky lower slopes of mountain ranges. As befitting an animal that lives in these isolated areas, they are themselves loners: Pallas’s Cat normally lives by itself, in a burrow or den underground.

Its thick coat and tail provides protection against the cold climate.

Pallas's Cat: kittens bred at Birmingham zoo
Pallas’s Cat: kittens bred at Birmingham zoo

Their mating season is short, and they have litters of 2 to 6 kittens, who are ready to live independently after six months.

They are ambush hunters, and slowly stalk their pray by keeping low to the ground, undercover. Their short legs are well adapted to climbing steep slopes, but make them slow runners.

Pallas’s Cat also has other distinctive features.

Pallas's Cat: the only feline with circular pupils
Pallas’s Cat: the only feline with circular pupils

It is the only species of feline with circular pupils, rather than the slits other cats have. It also makes unusual sounds when alarmed or excited: yelping or growling, more like a dog than other cats.

Pallas’s Cat has small, flattened ears, which has contributed to part of its current scientific name: Octobolus Manual. From Ancient Greek, Octobolus can be translated as, ‘ugly eared’.

The cat’s rather stern expression has led to it being a favourite meme subject, a wild version of Grumpy Cat. A star of nature documentaries, it is an amazing animal to see in its natural environment.

Pallas's grave in Berlin
Pallas’s grave in Berlin

Pallas returned from his expedition in 1774 exhausted, but triumphant.

His efforts were publicly celebrated, and he was feted by Catherine. The Empress bought his collection of specimens, paying above the asking price, and then allowed him to keep them. She also gifted him a substantial estate, in Simferopol.

He would teach natural science to her children, the Grand Dukes Alexander and Constantine.

Pallas returned to academia, but would launch another major expedition in 1793. This time he would spend two years exploring the Crimea and the Black Sea, where he had further encounters with the wildcat named after him. His first wife had passed by this time, he was now accompanied by his daughter.

Pallas died in Berlin, in September 1811.

Pallas's Cat: a grumpy wild cat
Pallas’s Cat: a grumpy wild cat

Despite their remote habitat, Pallas’s Cat faces a number of present-day threats.

The indigenous population of the steppes hunt the cats for their fur, although this has declined in more recent years. Domestic dogs also prey on the cats.

They are often inadvertently poisoned, eating baits that are laid out to control other species, like voles and other rodents. Climate change, and human encroachment, are impacting their native environment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates Pallas’s Cat has a wild population of about 15 000, and declining. The species is assessed as ‘near threatened’.

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