Last year, conservation organisation Panthera released footage of a trio of sand cat kittens looking inarguably adorable as they glared, wide-eyed, into the blaze of a researcher's spotlight. Cat lovers approved and view counts quickly skyrocketed into viral territory. Well, it turns out that wasn't the only footage the researchers captured of the elusive felines. Earlier this month, a second snippet of footage was unveiled – this time filmed on remote camera traps positioned around the tuft of vegetation where the kittens were first spotted.

Filmed just six hours after the initial video that made this triplet of fuzzballs internet famous back in September 2017, the newly released footage provides a window into natural sand cat kitten behaviour. The video kicks off with a close-up as we watch one of the kittens boldly approach the camera leaving its more timid siblings grooming and playing in the background. "This difference in temperament among littermates has been documented in several cat species, including tigers and jaguars," Grégory Breton, Panthera France's managing director, explains in a blog post. "Despite their much smaller size, sand cats are no exception!"

Much like domestic kittens, the mini sand cats are playful – stalking and tackling just about anything within reach. For wild carnivores, this behaviour serves as training, helping the cats to develop hunting skills and reflexes vital to their survival. Although the kittens were only six to eight weeks old when the footage was captured, they already showed an interest in rodents that occasionally wandered past.

Sand cats inhabit a swathe of desert terrain from the dune seas of the Sahara to the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan. Locating and tracking the species for study, however, can be particularly problematic. Remote camera-traps have become a standard survey method to glean data about wild animal populations, but the barren habitat that the sand cat calls home is treeless, leaving little to attach cameras to.

A lack of trees also means that sand cats have to get creative when it comes to sharpening their claws. With no wood readily available, the kittens were documented in the latest footage using dehydrated dromedary dung balls to hone their nails! 

A female sand cat sheltering against a tuft of desert grass. Image © Grégory Breton

The kittens can also be seen grooming – marking the first time that this behaviour has been documented in the species. "All of the sand cats we’ve studied have carried fleas and ticks, and these kittens were also likely hosts," Breton explains. "Grooming is essential for removing these external parasites and for reinforcing the bond between littermates."

Since sand cat females breed every year, it's likely that these kittens have since dispersed in search of their own territories. The researchers that filmed these wide-eyed cats also spotted a lactating female in the same vicinity – a cat which they suspect to be the mother of the now famous kittens. She was fitted with a collar and is believed to have since shifted her territory into a new range or settled into a den in preparation for a new litter.

Although sand cats are listed as "Least Concern" by the IUCN, little is known about their distribution and the threats they may face across their extensive range. Their nocturnal or crepuscular habits, impressive camouflage and general elusiveness make the species difficult to study. "Gaining knowledge about sand cats’ distribution, threats, and status is vital for their conservation," writes Breton. "With rising temperatures, the desert may become too harsh for this ecosystem, isolating rodents and sand cats to small pockets and threatening the viability of the species."

For more developments and updates, follow the Sand Cat Sahara Research Team on Facebook (they also monitor other native carnivores of the Moroccan Sahara, including fennec and Rüppell’s foxes and African wildcats).

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Top header image: Panthera