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The cat's out of the bag

The Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul) aka manul is a small wild cat similar in size to a domestic cat. It has a stocky build and a long, thick coat which helps protect it in its frosty habitat. These cats were named in 1776 after Peter Pallas, the eighteenth-century German zoologist. The word ‘manul’ comes from the Mongolian language. The scientific name of Pallas’s cat, Otocolobus, is from Greek and means 'ugly-eared' (gasp!).

Otocolobus manul, by flickr user Kouyuzu (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pallas’s cats are found in Turkmenistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia, and Russia. They inhabit arid, montane shrublands and grasslands, rocky outcrops, scree slopes, and ravines in areas, where the continuous snow cover is below 15-20 cm (6-8 in). In the central part of their range, they live in hilly landscapes, high plateaus, and intermontane valleys that are covered by dry steppe or semi-desert vegetation, such as low shrubs and xerophytic grasses.

The manul has many unusual properties. For example, its fur changes color depending on the season, in winter being a frosted gray and in spring a gray/fox-red. The pupils of its large eyes, unlike those of other small cats, contract to small circles instead of slits!

Secretive and solitary, Pallas’s cats move slowly but purposefully, concealing themselves within their environment and blending into the background. They are mainly crepuscular but, in some areas, they may also be active during the day. In the daytime, Pallas's cats shelter in rock crevices or small caves, the most common place being the abandoned burrows of marmots. They are adept predators and hunt by stalking and then ambushing prey. Pallas’s cats growl or yelp when excited, sounding like a small dog. They can also purr!

Currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List but its numbers today are decreasing. Major threats to this animal are the large-scale poisoning of vole and pika populations, which are important prey items for Pallas’s cats. Habitat fragmentation and development as well as domestic dogs are other increasing threats to Pallas’s cats. They have also been hunted for many years for their luxurious fur, but international trade in their skin has declined in recent years.

Today, we share a short-read chromosome-length genome assembly for the Pallas's cat generated using primary fibroblasts. We thank the Brookfield Zoo T.C. Hsu Cryo-Zoo at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center for providing a sample for this work and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre and the DNA Zoo Australia team at the University of Western Australia for computational support! Check out the interactive Hi-C contact map for the species below!

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