The Turkestan sand cat known by the scientific name Felis margarita thinobia is a common spicie of wild cat in Central Asia. It is also native to deserts in the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.
The Turkestan sand cat was first described as a separate species in 1926 by Russian zoologist Sergey Ognev who collected it in Turkmenistan. 12 years later, zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock from the UK assigned this specimen to a species called Felis thinobius. He later identified it as the subspecies of the sand cat that is widely recognized today.
Sand cat specimens found in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan have been described as having darker and grayer coats than Saharan sand cats, with less pronounced markings and only 2–3 tail rings. The Turkestan sand cat is currently has become quite rare, and in some regions is on the verge of extinction.
In Central Asia, until the late 1960s, it was known that the Turkestan subspecies of the sand cat occurs in the Karakum desert from the Ustyurt plateau in the northwest to the Kopetdag mountains in the south and from the Kyzylkum desert to the Syr Darya River and the northern border. to Afghanistan. In the spring of 2013 and 2014, adult dune cats with kittens were photographed in the southern part of the Kyzylkum desert.
The sand cat is part of an evolutionary lineage that, according to analysis of their nuclear DNA, genetically diverged from a common ancestor of the Felis species approximately 4.44 to 2.16 million years ago. Analysis of their mitochondrial DNA indicates a genetic divergence between the sand cat species and the ancestors of the domestic cat took place approximately 6.52 to 1.03 million years ago.
The sand cat’s fur is a pale, sandy, Isabella color, but much lighter on the underside of the head, around the nose, throat, and belly. A faint reddish line runs from the outer corner of each eye down the cheeks. The limbs have dark brown to blackish stripes, and the tail has a black tip with two or three dark rings alternating with yellowish brown stripes. Markings vary between individuals: some have neither spots nor stripes, some have faint spots, some have both spots and stripes. Its head is sandy brown.
The large greenish-yellow eyes are surrounded by a white ring, and the nose is blackish. Its whiskers are white and up to 8 cm (3.1 in) long. Its ears are tawny at the base and tipped with black. Its outer ear is similar to that of a domestic cat, but the ear canal is about twice as large. The acoustic input-transmission value is about five times higher than that of a domestic cat. In addition, the sand cat’s auditory sensitivity is about 8 decibels higher than that of a domestic cat.
In Turkmenistan and other countries of Central Asia, the sand cat’s winter coat is very long and thick, reaching 51 mm (2 in) in length. Its front claws are short and very sharp, while those on its hind feet are small and blunt. The underside of its paws is protected from extreme temperatures by thick fur. The long hair that grows between its toes creates a fur cushion on the pads of its paws, helping to insulate them as it moves across the hot sand. This feature makes cat tracks obscure and difficult to identify and track.