Wild Manul Cubs Caught on Video in Mongolia

Scientists have launched a new research initiative to shed light on the manul, aka Pallas' cat. (Photo: Charles Barilleaux/Flickr)

The manul is a small, stealthy wild cat from Central Asia. Also known as Pallas' cat, it has charmed the internet in recent years with its fluffy fur and expressive face.

But while the manul loosely resembles a domestic cat, it's a very different animal. Its famous fur — the longest and densest of any cat — helps it endure cold, arid habitats as high as 15,000 feet, while also providing camouflage. It prowls territories up to 100 square kilometers (38 square miles), ambushing small prey in rocky steppes and grasslands. It's rare in most of its range, which technically stretches from Iran to China, but scientists think it's still doing relatively well in Mongolia.

Since so little is known about these charismatic cats, scientists launched a research initiative this year to demystify them. The Pallas' Cat International Conservation Alliance (PICA) is still in the early stages, but it's already paying off with rare video of wild manuls — including cubs! — going about their lives in their natural habitat.

The video below, released Sept. 1 by Snow Leopard Trust, comes from the Zoolon Mountains in Mongolia's Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, where PICA placed a set of remote-sensor wildlife cameras. It opens with shots of an adult manul sniffing around in broad daylight, then switches to even more endearing images of several young cubs investigating one of the cameras at night:

"This is the first footage of Pallas' cat cubs taken in this part of Mongolia as far as we know, and is a valuable discovery from our project partners Snow Leopard Trust," says David Barclay, cat conservation officer for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, in a statement about the new video.

Footage like this clearly demonstrates the cuteness and charisma of Pallas' cats, but just by offering a glimpse of them in the wild, it can also help inform our meager understanding of the species' biology, behavior and distribution.

Pallas' cats have long been hunted for their fur, and while that danger has faded due to legal protections, they're still threatened by other human activities, according to the U.K. conservation group Wildscreen. Some of their prey is poisoned in China and Russia, for example, where small mammals known as pikas are considered pests. And like many wild carnivores around the world, perhaps the greatest threat to Pallas' cats comes from loss and fragmentation of their habitat.

Scientists aren't sure how many wild manuls exist across Asia, where exactly they live or how well they can adapt to human encroachment, so the first step to protecting them is shedding more light on their secretive lives.

"We still don't know much about the Pallas' cat's behavior, or even its true range," says Emma Nygren, a conservation biologist at Nordens Ark who coordinates the PICA project. "If we're hoping to conserve this mysterious cat, we need to first understand it, and we're hoping this study will bring valuable new insights."

In the meantime, if conservationists want the internet to embrace their efforts, cute kitten videos are always a good place to start.