9 Female Pirates You Should Know About

library of congress
library of congress

When you think of pirates, you're likely picturing bearded buccaneers or peg-legged scalawags with names like Blackbeard, Barbarossa, and Calico Jack. While most pirates were men, there were women in these ranks of raiders who were just as merciless, notorious, and feared. Spanning the globe and centuries, we introduce you to the infamous she-pirates of the seven seas.

1. Anne Bonny

Born Anne Cormac in 1698, this Irish lass with luscious red locks and a dangerous temper became an icon of The Golden Age of Piracy (1650s-1730s) after marrying small-time pirate James Bonny. Anne's respectable father disowned her over the marriage, so she and her new husband moved to a portion of the Bahamas nicknamed the Pirates Republic, a sanctuary of sorts for scalawags. But the Bonnys were not happily married for long.

They divorced, and she took up with Calico Jack Rackham, first as his lover, then as his first mate of the ship Revenge. In October of 1720, she and the rest of Rackham's crew were captured despite Bonny and her bosom buddy Mary Read's valiant attempts to fight off the advancing English forces. Bonny blamed Rackham for their capture. Her last words to him in prison are recorded as, "Sorry to see you there, but if you'd fought like a man, you would not have been hang'd like a Dog."

He was hanged, but Bonny's pregnancy earned her a stay of execution. However, no historical record of her death sentence was found. Some speculate that her affluent father paid a handsome price to have her set free.

2. Mary Read

Best mate of Anne Bonny was Mary Read, an Englishwoman born the bastard of a sea captain's widow. While Bonny was said to wear clothes that identified her as female, Read had a long history of masquerading as male that dates back to her youth. Her mother would dress Read as her late older brother to wheedle money from the dead boy's paternal grandmother. Years later, she joined the British military as Mark Read. She found love with a Flemish soldier, but upon his untimely death Read headed to the West Indies. As fate would have it, her ship was taken by pirates, who pushed her to join their ranks.

Cross-dressing as a man, Read set sail with Anne Bonny and Calico Jack on the Revenge in 1720. Some stories suggest that only Bonny and Jack knew of Read's womanhood, and only because the latter grew jealous when the former flirted with "Mark." Later that year, a third in their crew would learn Read's secret, and she claimed him as her husband.

When the Revenge was captured by pirate hunter Captain Jonathan Barnet, Read joined Bonny in "pleading the belly." But pregnancy from her unnamed husband would not save her. She died on April 28th 1721, from a violent fever in her prison cell. No record is made of the burial of a baby. Some suspect Read and the infant died during childbirth.

3. Sadie the goat

American pirate of the 19th century, Sadie Farrell earned her unusual nickname for her violent modus operandi. On the streets of New York City, Sadie won a reputation as a merciless mugger by head-butting her victims. It's said that Sadie was chased out of Manhattan when a fellow female tough, Gallus Mag, brawled with her, biting off Sadie's ear.

To flee the city, she wrangled a new gang to steal a sloop in the spring of 1869. With a Jolly Roger flapping above them, Sadie and her crew became pirates that swept the Hudson and Harlem Rivers for booty. She'd lead raids on the farmhouses and posh mansions that dotted the river's side, occasionally kidnapping folks for ransom. By the end of summer these raids became too risky as the farmers took to firing upon the sloop as it drew near. So, Sadie the Goat returned to the mainland, where she made peace with Gallus Mag, who returned to Sadie her lost ear which had been pickled for posterity.

Known now as "Queen of the Waterfront," Sadie took her dismembered ear and placed it in a locket, which she wore around her neck for the rest of her days.

4. Queen teuta of illyria

One the earliest recorded female pirates was actually a pirate queen. Once her husband Agron died in 231 BC, Teuta of Illyria became queen regent, as her stepson Pinnes was too young to rule. During her four years of reign over the Ardiaei tribe of what is now the Western Balkans, Teuta encouraged piracy as a means of fighting back against Illyria's domineering neighbors. This not only meant the plundering of Roman ships, but also the capturing of Dyrrachium and Phoenice. Her pirates spread out from the Adriatic Sea into the Ionian Sea, terrorizing the trade route of Greece and Italy. While Teuta's seafaring tribesman brought her kingdom great wealth and power, they also won her a great enemy.

Romans sent representatives to Teuta for a diplomatic meeting. She scoffed at their pleas, insisting that her tribe sees piracy as a part of lawful trade. From there diplomacy went out the window. It's unknown what the Roman reps said next. But one ambassador was killed, while the other was imprisoned. So began a war between Rome and Illyria that lasted from 229 BC to 227 BC, when Teuta was forced to surrender on terms that cut down her power and forced her tribe to pay annual tribute to Rome. 

Though she continued to rail against Roman rule, she lost her throne. The rest of her life was lost to history.

5. Back From the Dead Red

Born the daughter of a Frenchman and a Haitian woman in 17th century, Jacquotte Delahaye stole untold fortunes and captured the imaginations of many seafaring storytellers. This buccaneer lost her mother to childbirth and her brother was mentally handicapped, and once her father was murdered Delahaye was left alone to care for him. Legend has it that piracy is how she managed to do just that.

Her nickname comes from the most popular aspect of her story, which claims this red-haired pirate faked her own death to escape the government forces that were closing in on her in the 1660s. From there, she took up a new identity, living for several years as a man. Finally, when the heat died down she resurfaced with her catchy new moniker Back From the Dead Red.

6. The Lioness Of Brittany

Jeanne de Clisson's tale is one of tragedy, revenge and the showmanship. As the wife of Olivier III de Clisson, Jeanne was a happily married mother of five, and a lady of Brittany, France. But when land wars between England and France led to her husband being charged with treason and punished with decapitation, she swore revenge on the France's King Philip VI. 

The widowed de Clisson sold all of her land to buy three warships, which she dubbed her Black Fleet. These were painted black, draped with blood red sails, and crewed with merciless privateers. From 1343-1356, the Lioness of Brittany sailed the English Channel, capturing the French King's ships, cutting down his crew, and beheading with an axe any aristocrat who had the misfortune to be onboard. Remarkably, despite all her theft and bloodshed, de Clisson retired quietly. She even remarried, settling down with English lieutenant Sir Walter Bentley.

Believed to have died in 1359, some say she has since returned to de Clisson Castle in Brittany, where her grey ghost walks the halls.

7. Anne Dieu-Le-Veut

Also from Brittany was this French woman, whose name translates to Anne God-Wants, a title said to speak to her tenacious nature. She came to the Caribbean island of Tortuga in the late 1660s or early 1670s. From there she suffered some rocky years that made her a widow twice over, as well as a mother of two. But as fate would have it, her second husband was killed by the man who'd become her third. Dieu-le-Veut insisted on a duel with Laurens de Graaf, to avenge her late mate. The Dutch buccaneer was so taken by her courage that he refused to fight her, and instead offered her his hand. They married on July 28th, 1693, and had two more children.

Dieu-le-Veut set sail with de Graaf, which was considered odd as many seamen considered women on ships bad luck. Yet Dieu-le-Veut and de Graaf's relationship has been compared to that of Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, in that they were inseparable partners who sneered at superstition. Like many pirates, their story is one that becomes fractured in its final chapter.

Dieu-le-Veut's legend has this brassy broad taking over as captain when de Graaf was struck down by a cannonball blast. Others suggest that the couple fled to Mississippi around 1698, where they may or may not have continued to pirate. And still other tales claim that Dieu-le-Veut's pugnacious spirit lived on in her daughter, who was said to raise eyebrows in Haiti by demanding a duel with a man.

8. Sayyida al Hurra

A contemporary and ally of the Turkish pirate Barbarossa, Sayyida al-Hurra was a pirate queen and was the last woman awarded the title of al Hurra (Queen), following the death of her husband who had ruled Tétouan, Morocco. In fact, her real name is unknown. Sayyida al Hurra is a title that translates to noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”

She ruled from 1515-1542, controlling the western Mediterranean Sea with her pirate fleet while Barbarossa roamed the eastern side. Al Hurra's inspiration to take to piracy came from a wish for revenge against the "Christian enemy" she felt had wronged her years before when Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella ran her Muslim family out of Granada. She was a feared figure for the Spanish and Portuguese, whose historical records are peppered with paperwork involving reports about her exploits and ransoms.

At the height of her power, al-Hurra remarried to the king of Morocco, yet refused to give up her seat of power in Tétouan. But in 1542, she was given no choice when her son-in-law overthrew her. The Yemen Times weighs in on her final chapter, writing, "She was stripped of her property and power and her subsequent fate is unknown."

9. Ching Shih

One of the most feared pirates of all time was this menace of the China Sea. Born in humble beginnings as Shi Xiang Gu, she was working as a prostitute when pirates captured her. In 1801, she married the notorious Chinese pirate Zheng Yi (a.k.a. Cheng I), who came from a long line of fearsome thieves. Yi's Red Flag Fleet was immense, made up of 300 ships and somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 men. But all this was at risk of falling apart when he died on November 16th, 1807.

Gu became known as Ching Shih, which meant widow of Zheng. She was quick to seek the backing of her in-laws in her bid for leadership of the Red Flag Fleet. To help her maintain the day-to-day concerns of a sprawling pirate army, Ching Shih enlisted the help of Chang Pao, a fisherman's son who had been adopted by Yi. They proved a great team, and by 1810 the Red Fleet is said to have grown to 1800 sailing vessels and 80,000 crew members. To manage so many, Ching Shih essentially set up her own government to establish laws and even taxes. Yet she was no soft touch. Breaking her laws lead to decapitation. She was revered and feared as far away as Great Britain.

In 1810, Ching Shih and her fleet considered getting out of the piracy business when amnesty was offered. However, to get it a pirate must bend the knee before government officials. This was considered a sign of shameful surrender, but Ching Shih found a clever way to compromise. With Pao and 17 women and children in tow, she marched into the office of official Zhang Bai Ling, and asked that he marry her and her first mate. He did, and the newlyweds knelt to thank him. Ching Shih retired with her dignity and all her ill-gotten loot, which some have suggested makes her the most successful pirate of all time. She lived to the age of 69.

20 Surprising Facts About Benedict Cumberbatch

Larry Busacca, Getty Images
Larry Busacca, Getty Images

If Benedict Cumberbatch isn't careful, he might just run out of dream roles to play. Since the earliest days of his career, the 42-year-old actor has made no secret that there were two roles at the top of his character bucket list: Hamlet and Patrick Melrose, the protagonist at the center of Edward St Aubyn's critically acclaimed series of novels.

In 2015, Cumberbatch took the stage in London to do the whole "to be or not to be" thing. (More on that later.) In 2018, he starred in Patrick Melrose, Showtime's television adaptation of the book series, and earned both Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for the role. Now, Cumberbatch is back on the small screen—and bald—for the HBO movie Brexit, which premieres on January 19th.

1. He made his stage debut playing a "very bossy" Joseph in a Nativity play.

In a 2010 interview with London Theatre, Cumberbatch shared that his first stage performance found him playing “a very bossy Joseph in the Nativity play at primary school. Apparently I pushed Mary offstage because she was taking too long. Actresses eh!”

2. He thinks his name sounds like "a fart in a bath."

There’s something very regal-sounding about a name like Benedict Cumberbatch, but it’s not one that necessarily rolls right off the tongue. The Washington Post once identified the actor as “Bandersnatch Cummerbund” (though later clarified that it was a joke). But there have been plenty of other mix-ups—like the time a television show ID'ed him as “Benedict Cumberpatch” (which sort of has a nice ring to it).

Cumberbatch had a feeling that his name might cause problems in his career, which is why he began his career as Benedict Carlton (which is his middle name). Ultimately, it was his agent who convinced him to use Cumberbatch, even though the actor said the surname sounds like “a fart in a bath.”

3. He toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer.

Though he grew up in a family of actors, Cumberbatch wasn’t always planning to live his life out in front of a camera. In fact, it was because of his parents’ chosen profession that they encouraged him to pursue a more stable calling, which led him to want to become a criminal lawyer.

“[Acting is] a very odd, peripatetic, crazed, out of your control work and social schedule,” Cumberbatch told The Mirror in 2015. “It's very hard to plan a family life, let alone know where the next paycheck is coming from so they worked very, very hard as my parents, and actors, to afford me an education whereby I had the opportunity and the privilege to try and channel myself towards other goals.

“For a while, I wanted to be a barrister because there's definitely a crossover with criminal law—with trying to persuade an audience and a jury and a judge of the case and your client's story so I did go down that route for a little bit. I think they would have been very happy if I ended up there."

He spoke with Vulture about his legal leanings, too, and noted that, “I would've loved the performance of court, the idea of persuading people, storytelling and all that. It parallels beautifully with acting, lots of frustrated, amateur dramatics going on in court all the time. I think lots of barristers literally perform in amateur dramatic societies and are very good actors. It's a massive crossover."

4. His parents on Sherlock are also his parents in real life.

Speaking of Cumberbatch’s parents: While both Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham are familiar faces as actors in their own right, fans of Sherlock might also be quick to recognize them as Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes’s parents.

In 2014, Cumberbatch told the Press Association that he was a little nervous about working with his parents, as “They’re Equity card carrying members but you know it was nerve-wracking because they are actors as well and yet they were brilliant and they were fantastic.”

5. He spent a year teaching in India.

During a gap year, Cumberbatch decided to volunteer his time and teach English at a Tibetan monastery in Darjeeling, India. “I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant,” he told Lion’s Roar. “In India, I went on a retreat with a lama—several days of incantation to clear and purify the mind—along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks."

Though teaching and acting may seem unrelated, many of the skills and practices Cumberbatch learned during that time eventually helped him in his acting career. “Stillness is an essential part of acting,” he said, “so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology.”

6. He was kidnapped in South Africa.

While filming the 2005 miniseries To the Ends of the Earth, Cumberbatch experienced another kind of epiphany when he nearly lost his life. The actor and two of his co-stars took a day off to learn how to scuba dive near Mozambique. On their way back from the outing, the actor explained, “The three of us were trying to change the tire. These six men appeared suddenly from the eucalyptus. They said: 'Put your hands on your head, don't look at us,' and were frisking us for drugs, money, weapons. Then they bundled us into the car. They dragged me up and put me in the boot of the car.”

Like so many of the quick-thinking characters he has played, Cumberbatch realized his only option was to try and argue his way out of the situation:

“I said: ‘If you leave me in here, it’s not the lack of air, it’s the small space. There’s a problem with my heart and my brain.’

“I just tried to explain to them: ‘I will die, possibly have a fit, and it will be a problem for you. I will be a dead Englishman in your car. Not good.’

“They shut the boot and had an argument, and then pulled me out. So I kind of thank God I had the presence of mind to give them the idea that it would be better to keep me alive. And the other two hadn’t been harmed.”

In a way, the incident became the impetus for Cumberbatch to pursue his dreams even more aggressively. “It taught me that you come into this world as you leave it, on your own,” he said. “It’s made me want to live a life slightly less ordinary.”

7. Julian Assange tried to talk him out of starring in The Fifth Estate.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange in 'The Fifth Estate' (2013)
DreamWorks

In 2013, a very white-haired Cumberbatch played the role of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. In preparing for the role, Cumberbatch—ever the dutiful actor—reached out to Assange about arranging a meeting. Assange’s response, which went viral, was rather epic. Though he assured Cumberbatch that he would very much enjoy meeting him, and that he believed they would get along, he spent the bulk of his word count telling the actor why making the film was a terrible idea:

“You will be used, as a hired gun, to assume the appearance of the truth in order to assassinate it. To present me as someone morally compromised and to place me in a falsified history. To create a work, not of fiction, but of debased truth.

“Not because you want to, of course you don't, but because, in the end, you are a jobbing actor who gets paid to follow the script, no matter how debauched.

“Your skills play into the hands of people who are out to remove me and WikiLeaks from the world.

“I believe that you should reconsider your involvement in this enterprise.”

The film went forward as planned, with Cumberbatch in the lead (though it was a critical and box office failure, which likely pleased Assange).

8. He is easily starstruck.

When asked during a Reddit AMA whether he’s ever been starstruck while meeting or working with a fellow actor, Cumberbatch admitted that it happens all the time: “Uhhhhhhhh. Every time I've met someone famous who I've been in the audience of,” he said. “I have the same butterflies and inability to be cool. I approach them as a fellow member of the human race as the next person in their audience does. I've been doing this for 10 odd years, and so to meet people who thrilled me with their work for my entire life in such a concentrated manner as has happened over the last few years has been mind-blowing.”

9. Ted Danson was really, really excited to meet him.

While Cumberbatch may get nervous every time he meets an acting hero, one well-known actor who was pretty excited to meet Cumberbatch was Cheers star Ted Danson. When asked during a Reddit AMA to share the “weirdest encounter you've had with a fan,” Cumberbatch answered: “Ted Danson at a pre-Oscar party screaming across a floor of people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ray Liotta, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, et al while pushing past them and knocking their drinks. ‘OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! IT'S F***ING SHERLOCK HOLMES!’”

10. He wasn't immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes.

Though playing the titular “consulting detective” in Sherlock is the role that brought Cumberbatch global recognition, saying yes to the part wasn’t exactly a no-brainer for the actor. While speaking at a BAFTA event in 2014, Cumberbatch admitted that he was actually a little hesitant to sign on for the project. “I heard about it and thought that sounds like an idea to [re-franchise] something to make money,” he said. “It could be a bit cheap and cheesy. Then I found out who was involved and realized it wouldn’t be cheap and cheesy.

“My mum had done a few episodes of Coupling with Steven [Moffat] and Mark Gatiss was a huge hero of mine when I was a student in League Of Gentleman,” Cumberbatch continued, “so I knew the stable was good. I thought I would read it and then I fell in love with it.”

11. The BBC wasn't sure Cumberbatch was "sexy" enough to pull off Sherlock.


BBC

It’s funny to think about now, considering Cumberatch’s massive worldwide fanbase, but just as the actor wasn’t immediately sold on playing Sherlock Holmes, the BBC wasn’t sure the actor was a great match for the role—because they wanted someone with sex appeal. While speaking at the Hay Festival in 2014, Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat talked about the BBC’s track record in determining which actors might connect with audiences—Cumberbatch being one of them.

“They said of casting David Tennant as Casanova, ‘Damn, you should have cast someone sexier,’” Moffat said. “With Benedict Cumberbatch, we were told the same thing. ‘You promised us a sexy Sherlock, not him.’”

Sue Vertue, a fellow producer on Sherlock (and Moffat's wife), relayed a similar tale to Entertainment Weekly just a few months prior to Moffat’s comments, telling the magazine: “When we first cast [Cumberbatch], people were saying, ‘You promised us a sexy one!’ People weren’t thinking of Benedict in that light at all.” His name, apparently, posed another problem: “When people said, ‘Who’s playing Sherlock Holmes?’ and we’d say, ‘Benedict Cumberbatch,’ everyone looked very vague,” Vertue said. “Then we’d always have to spell his name.”

12. He is (distantly) related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It turns out that Sherlock Holmes may have been the role Cumberbatch was born to play. In 2017, researchers at Ancestry.com made the rather fascinating discovery that Cumberbatch and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are sixteenth cousins, twice removed. The ancestral link between the two is former Duke of Lancaster John of Gaunt, who was Doyle’s 15th great-grandfather and Cumberbatch’s 17th great-grandfather.

13. He also has a family link to Alan Turing.

Amazingly, the Conan Doyle connection wasn’t the first time Cumberbatch’s ancestry was linked to one of his characters. In 2014, the same team of researchers determined that Cumberbatch was the 17th cousin of Alan Turing, the computer scientist/codebreaker he played in Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014)—a role that earned Cumberbatch an Oscar nomination in 2015.

14. He has been rendered in chocolate on more than one occasion.


UKTV/FLICKR

In a somewhat bizarre promotional campaign by Britain’s UKTV in 2015, Cumberbatch narrowly beat out David Tennant by a margin of just one percent to be named “TV Dishiest Drama Actor.” The prize? Having a life-sized statue, made entirely of Belgian chocolate, created in the actor’s likeness.

It took a team of eight people more than 250 man-hours to construct the delicious doppelgänger, dubbed “Benedict Chocobatch." In 2016, he was recreated in the sweet stuff again, though this time as an edible chocolate bunny/Benedict hybrid that fans could actually purchase … and eat.

15. He turned Hamlet into "the most in-demand show of all time."

In 2015, Cumberbatch achieved one of his lifetime dreams when it was announced that he would play Hamlet in a 12-week run at London’s Barbican theater. Tickets ended up selling out almost as fast as one could say “To be or not to be.” As The Telegraph reported in 2014:

"The curtain does not go up on the production for another year, but Cumberbatch's Hamlet is nevertheless outselling the next most popular show, the current run of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, by four to one. The show has even registered 214 per cent more ticket searches in the hours after tickets were released than Beyoncé and Jay Z’s global On the Run tour.

Hamlet tickets went on sale at 10am on August 11 and within minutes fans were expressing frustration at finding themselves more than 20,000 places back in the queue."

16. He's the leading man in a lot of fan fiction.

In addition to being a leading man on the stage and both the small and big screens, Cumberbatch plays a starring role in a lot of fan fiction. A lot of fan fiction! In 2013, The Mirror estimated that approximately 100 million words of fan fiction had been written about the Sherlock star. Considering that was six years ago, the word count has certainly only grown.

17. Simon Pegg convinced him that he might have radiation poisoning.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in 'Star Trek Into Darkness' (2013)
Paramount Pictures

While filming Star Trek: Into Darkness, Simon Pegg decided to have a little fun with Cumberbatch by convincing him that he was at risk for radiation exposure. According to Pegg, it worked. He recounted the story to The Sun in 2013:

"I don't like seeing people get embarrassed. But we were filming in a nuclear facility and one day I said that Chris [Pine] needed neutron cream—otherwise he'd get sunburn. He said, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah, you'll get a rash from ambient radiation in the air.' From there the trick spread to other cast members. Finally, we got Benedict. He had this speech and he kept f***ing it up. Afterwards he said, 'Guys, I'm ever so sorry —I've got a real headache. I think the ions were getting to me.' He was so convinced."

18. He has a rare genetic mutation.

If Cumberbatch’s eyes seem to regularly change color, you’re not imagining things: The actor was born with both central heterochromia and sectoral heterochromia—two rare-but-harmless genetic mutations that affect his eyes. Each of his eyes has multiple colors (a mix of blue, green, and gold) because of the central heterochromia, and the sectoral heterochromia is the reason why he has a brown “freckle” on his right eye.

But ask the actor what his favorite part of his body is, and the eyes have got it. “I guess as an actor your eyes are vital in conveying any internal thought process or feeling, and for that I have my mum to thank,” he said.

19. He's not cool with "Cumberbitches."

When Cumberbatch’s massive contingency of female fans dubbed themselves “Cumberbitches,” the actor took issue with the pejorative moniker. “It’s not even politeness,” he said of his distaste for the term. “I won’t allow you to be my bitches. I think it sets feminism back so many notches. You are ... Cumberpeople."

20. He has been a vocal proponent of closing the gender pay gap.

Equal pay in Hollywood is a hot-button topic, and Cumberbatch has made his stance on the issue very clear by stating that he won’t work on a project if his female co-stars aren’t being paid the same. "Equal pay and a place at the table are the central tenets of feminism," Cumberbatch told Radio Times. "Look at your quotas. Ask what women are being paid, and say: 'If she’s not paid the same as the men, I’m not doing it.'"

13 Fascinating Facts About Pallas’s Cats

iStock.com/NEALITPMCCLIMON
iStock.com/NEALITPMCCLIMON

Far across the world, an elusive—and adorable—wildcat called the Pallas’s cat (also known as the manul) roams the grasslands and steppes of Central Asia and Eurasia. Get to know the flat-faced, furry kitty, which has been featured in memes and viral videos and recently received its own wildlife preserve in Asia’s Altai Mountains.

1. It's named after naturalist Peter Pallas.

German naturalist Peter Pallas first described the furry wildcat in 1776. He named the kitty Felis manul, and theorized that it was an ancestor of the Persian cat, due to its round face, luxurious coat, and stocky body. (He was wrong.)

2. Its scientific name means "ugly-eared."

Later on, the cat's scientific name was changed from Felis manul to Otocolobus manul—not exactly the most flattering moniker, since Otocolobus is Greek for “ugly-eared.”

3. Its unusual ears come in handy.

Some may consider the Pallas’s cat’s ears to be ugly, while others might think they’re adorable. Arguments aside, the cat’s round ears—which sit flat on the sides of its head—are one of the feline's most distinguishing features. As Crystal DiMiceli, a former wild animal keeper at Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo, explains in the above video, having low-positioned ears helps the cat conceal itself—they don’t poke up to reveal the animal's position while it's hiding or hunting.

4. It has a dense, plush coat.

The coat of the Pallas's cat is its true crowning glory. It’s longer and denser than any other coat belonging to a member of the Felid species (growing in even heavier in the winter), and the undercoat on its belly is twice as long as the fur covering the rest of its body. The shade ranges from silvery grey during the winter to a darker, red-toned hue during warmer months. (Some cats are also red, particularly in Central Asia.) Its broad head is streaked and speckled with dark markings, and its bushy tail is banded with stripes and a dark tip. These markings tend to appear darker during the summer.

5. Its fur blends with its habitat, which conceals it from predators.

Pallas's cats live in areas ranging from Pakistan and northern India to central China, Mongolia, and southern Russia. According to Wild Cats of the World, by Luke Hunter, its body isn’t adapted for snow, so it sticks to cold, arid habitats—particularly grassy or rocky areas, which help conceal it from predators—at elevations of around 1500 to nearly 17,000 feet. The stocky cat isn’t a fast runner, so when it senses danger, it freezes and crouches flat and motionless on the ground, and its fur helps it blend in with its surroundings.

6. Pallas's cats aren't fat—they're just furry.

Pallas's cats typically weigh less than 12 pounds, and they’re usually only 2 feet or less in body length—meaning they’re not that much larger than an ordinary house cat. Yet their dense coat of fur makes them appear much larger.

7. Their pupils are round instead of vertical.

Pallas's cats do share one feature in common with larger wildcats, like lions and tigers: their eyes. Their pupils are round, whereas a house cat's pupils are vertical and slit-shaped. Wondering why some cats have round pupils while others have vertical ones? A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that animals’ pupil shapes might indicate their role in the predator/prey food chain. They analyzed 214 species of land animals (including cats), and noted that species with vertical pupils tended to be ambush predators that were active during both day and night. In contrast, species with vertical pupils were often “active foragers,” meaning they chase their prey. Also, predators that are closer to the ground, like house cats, were prone to vertical pupils, whereas larger wildcats had round ones. Pallas’s cats are small, and they are primarily ambush hunters, so the jury’s still out on whether the study's findings hold true for all creatures.

8. They subsist mostly on pika.

A Pallas's cat sticks its tongue out
iStock.com/Nikolai Vakhrushev

Pallas's cats are ambush hunters and spend much of their time hunting pika, a small mammal, and other critters like gerbils, voles, hares, ground squirrels, birds, and young marmots. Pika typically make up more than 50 percent of the cat's diet. 

9. They may be distantly related to the leopard cat.

Peter Pallas thought the animal was related to the Persian cat. (We think it looks like a Maine Coon and a Scottish Fold had a baby and weaned it on steroid milk.) However, experts have uncovered evidence that the wildcat’s nearest—yet still pretty distant—relative might be the leopard cat.

10. They's not social animals.

The Pallas's cat is notoriously elusive and spends much of its time hiding in caves, crevices, or abandoned burrows.

11. They don't seem to like each other much.

A pair of Pallas's cats size each other up
iStock.com/eli77

Pallas's cats may be adorably fluffy, but they aren’t the world’s sweetest, most cuddly creatures. In fact, they’re very aggressive. Case in point: In The Wild Cat Book, authors Fiona and Mel Sunquist recount an anecdote provided by Bill Swanson, the Cincinnati Zoo’s director of animal research. Zookeepers thought that a litter of newborn Pallas's cats were having difficulty breathing, but “when they listened closely, they realized that the noise they were hearing was the kittens growling and hissing at each other—before they had even opened their eyes!"

12. Their mating period is brief.

Pallas’s cats mate between December and March; the females typically give birth between the end of March and May, after a gestation period of 66 to 75 days. Pallas’s cats usually give birth to three or four kittens, but litters can sometimes have as many as eight kittens. Kittens become independent by four to five months, and when they reach nine to 10 months, they’re mature enough to reproduce. 

13. They're classified as "near-threatened."

It's estimated that Pallas's cats can live up to six years in the wild, but because of predators and other dangers, their lifespan is likely to be half this length. In captivity, they’ve been known to survive for nearly 12 years.

In 2002, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified the Pallas’s cat as “near-threatened,” and that status remains today. Many factors contribute to their low numbers, including farming, agricultural activities, mining, and poisoning campaigns aimed at reducing pika and marmot populations. They're also often killed in traps meant for wolves and foxes, or by domestic dogs. And despite international trading bans and legal protections in some countries, they're often hunted for their fur. (The cat's fat and organs are also used to make traditional medicines.) 

Scientists don't have enough data to estimate the Pallas’s cat's population size, but due to their scarcity and the many threats they face, experts believe that their numbers have dropped by 10 to 15 percent over the past decade or so. To better understand—and protect—the animal, an international team of conservationists recently secured a 12-mile swath of land in Sailyugemsky Nature Park, which lies in the Altai Mountains between Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as a sanctuary for the rare cat. There, they hope to monitor its population, study its habitat, and build a database of information detailing encounters with it. 

Additional Source:
Wild Cats of the World by Luke Hunter

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