You could be forgiven for assuming the astonishing video below shows a trio of cartoon kittens: big eyes, bigger ears, tiny paws:

In fact, watching it again, we're almost back to being convinced of the cartoon thing. But if we're to believe Panthera (and, OK, we believe 'em) this is actually incredibly rare footage of sand-cat kittens in the Saharan Desert of Morocco, taken in April and just recently released.

"We believe this was the first time researchers ever documented wild sand cat kittens in their African range," Grégory Breton, Panthera France's managing director, wrote in a blog post announcing the milestone.

He reports that the wide-eyed fuzzballs – likely on the order of six to eight weeks old – were picked up in the glare of his colleague Alexander Sliwa's spotlight at about 2am as the researchers and their driver were headed back to camp after hours of scouting for sand cats. While the kittens were too young to radio-collar, the team managed to collar a female sand cat spotted in the vicinity –quite possibly the litter's mother.

Breton wrote, "If we collect footage of her and follow her for a long period, we can gather data on the natural reproduction cycles and offspring dispersal of this species in the wild - all topics never before documented."

Breton and his colleagues with the Sand Cat Sahara Research Team have been surveying these small, pale, lightly striped felids in southern Morocco since 2013, and their study has documented nearly 30 individual cats and collared 13. The work – up against the sand cat's camouflage, crepuscular/nocturnal habits, and all-around elusiveness – is shedding important light on the little-known species, which inhabits desert wilds in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

That's an impressively large geography – from the dune seas of the Sahara to the Kyzylkum Desert of Uzbekistan – but within it the sand cat's known distribution is patchy. "It is not known whether the gaps in known range are due to a lack of records or truly reflect species absence," the International Union for Conservation of Nature notes in its profile on Felis margarita. (The sand cat's kinda awesome Latin name honours not a slushy tequila cocktail but the 19th-century French general Jean Auguste Margueritte).

Sand cats may look like dainty little pet felines, but they're hardy as can be, enduring the desert's dramatic temperature swings by sheltering in burrows or beneath rocks and shrubs, and persisting in parched wastes by getting most of their moisture from prey. Should these Moroccan kittens survive, they'll become adept stalkers (and digger-uppers) of mice, gerbils, jerboas and other rodents, plus small birds, lizards and snakes.

You can follow developments from the Sand Cat Sahara Research Team (which also keeps tabs on other striking native carnivores of the Moroccan Sahara, including fennec and Rüppell’s foxes and African wildcats) at its Facebook page.



Top header image: Pathera