Peter S. Pallas and His Curious Cats

by Diane Shaw

The scientific names assigned to animals often have intriguing origins, which can be revealed by books in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ collections. The Pallas’s Cat of central Asia, for instance, is named after German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811), the first person to publish a detailed description of the animal. Although he was not fully aware that the curious creatures he had seen during his travels were a new species, Pallas’s account and his accompanying illustration were definitive enough to establish the foundation for the scientific record. Pallas spent much of his life in Russia, where he conducted expeditions in search of new and unusual animals and plants. In his account, Travels through the southern provinces of the Russian Empire in the years 1793 and 1794 (originally published in German in 1799-1801), he speculated that the mysterious felines known today as the Pallas’s Cat (Felis manul) were the half-wild offspring of a local nobleman’s pet:


“A particular species, or mongrel variety, of the domestic cat, engaged a considerable share of my attention. It was the offspring of a black cat which belonged to Yegor Michailovitch Shedrinskoi, Counsellor of State, and had kittened three young ones that exactly resembled each other. Their mother lived alone in the village of Nikolskoi, in the district of Insara, on this nobleman’s estate, and often retired to a young forest, behind a garden which is laid out in the English style. The domestics had remarked that this cat was absent during th rutting season; and it was also reported that she formerly had kittens of the common kind, which she devoured a few days after their birth. I saw two of her brood in the house of Counsellor Martynof, and one in that of the Lord-lieutenant. The form of this cat, and particularly the nature and colour of the hair, exhibited so extraordinary an appearance, that I was induced to give a representation of it in the first plate. It is of a middle size, has somewhat smaller legs than the common cat, and the head is longer towards the nose. The tail is thrice the length of the head. The colour of the body is a light chesnut brown like that of the pole-cat, but blacker on the back, especially towards the tail, and paler along the sides and belly. … The exquisite olfactory sense, agility, and other characteristics of these three animals, are similar to those of the common cat. But they had been extremely wild at first, hid themselves in cellars, and holes, nay even burrowed under ground, and had not yet acquired the sociable qualities of our domesticated cats. I shall not attempt to determine whether they may be considered as a mongrel breed.”—Diane Shaw

(From v. 1, p. 48-49 and plate 1, of the from the 2nd London ed.; held by SIL’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, qDK509.P3513 1812 v. 1-2 CHMRB)

More information about the Pallas’s Cat can be found on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/name/Felis_manul, where scanned volumes from SIL and the other BHL partner institutions can be consulted.

100 thoughts on “Peter S. Pallas and His Curious Cats

  1. zara

    According to the dicribption it was an old-style Siamese cat. Why is it associated with Felis Manul? There shall be the discription of another cat in Pallas’s books. Thank you in advance for your explanation.

  2. Bead Stalk

    Its a beautiful species that shares its ancestors with persian cats. What I think is most interesting about the cat aside from its markings is the fact that it has round pupils. Beautiful sketch.

  3. Diane Shaw

    It’s wonderful that this blog entry about Peter S. Pallas and his research on cats has attracted so much interest. Because of all these comments, I will be doing a follow-up entry later this month, giving some additional background information, pictures, and links about the Pallas’s Cat and Peter Pallas. I am particularly indebted to the help provided to me by an Armenian researcher on cats, Zara Arushanyan, who contacted me about this blog entry –stay tuned for the update!

  4. Handicap Ramps

    Cats bring a lot of enjoyment to my life, especially as getting around for me is not so easy these days. I have two that sort of adopted me as they must have been strays but they’re content to spend their precious time with me.

  5. Mayrenne

    This is very interesting, I love cats. I never heard of this breed. Don’t teh Smithsonian Libraries have an archive online, I would love to check out Mr. Pallas’ work.

  6. antique

    I have two Russian blue cats. I did not really know too much about this breed. Very interesting. He sounds like a great man.

  7. Cindy

    Nice to see some back ground behind this.
    I would think that most names of species, if not purely scientifically names, probably have interesting stories behind them. Many things that are popular today will probably fall out of common knowledge and would need an explanation 50 to 100 years from now.

  8. bookcase

    The colour of the body is a light chesnut brown like that of the pole-cat, but blacker on the back, especially towards the tail, and paler along the sides and belly. …

  9. Big Bear Cabin Rentals

    It is simply amazing to me how we take knowledge for granted. In this day and age, anything we want to know is only a couple of keystrokes away. I can’t imagine being one of these pioneers that had the opportunity to travel the world and find new species that had never been seen by the majority of civilized people before.

  10. surge protector

    You probably know this but the cat’s most immediate ancestor is believed to be the African wild cat. The cat has been living in close association with humans for somewhere between 3,500 and 8,000 years. That’s a long time.

  11. Fort Lauderdale DUI Attorney

    I have not been a cat lover but this article is really interesting and I look forward to the updates about Pallas’s Cat and Peter Pallas. Fort Lauderdale DUI Attorney

  12. Buenos Aires Dating

    You entertained me with your post!
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  13. Mika

    It is an awesome picture. I really love graphic work thought i prefer nature but this is nature.I like pictures of trees – could he put this cat on a tree – just joking.

  14. Radon Test

    I have never considered myself a cat person, however, when my daughter came back home to live and brought two cats with her, they started to grow on me. When she left, I actually miss those two critters.

  15. Phil

    Thank you so much for your post. Like so many other cat lovers here I’d never heard of the Pallas cat before (in spite of being a cat butler since 1984) For those wanting a closer look I suggest Youtube and searching for Pallas Cat Kittens.


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