Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What snow leopards really eat

Declining prey populations are widely recognized as a primary threat to snow leopard (Panthera uncia) populations throughout their range. Effective snow leopard conservation will depend upon reliable knowledge of food habits. Unfortunately, past food-habit studies may be biased by inclusion of nontarget species in fecal analysis, potentially misinforming managers about snow leopard prey requirements.

It was estimated that there are only 4,500–7,500 snow leopards left in the wild and consequently the species is listed in CITES Appendix I. Knowledge of their dietary habits is a life-history parameter needed for effective conservation but it seems that as a result of the inclusion of non-target species samples in past studies, our understanding of the snow leopard has been biased to say the least. The issue with collecting and identifying scat in the field is that researchers mostly rely on morphological characteristics such as shape, size or associated signs of snow leopards, and since scat from different species can look similar, this can lead to misrepresented population estimates and errors in reporting what the snow leopards are actually eating.

It has been thought that they consume great numbers of small mammals such as marmots, hares and pika, as well as wild ungulates, such as ibex. Older estimates of the amount of small mammals snow leopards consume may have been overstated, and the importance of large ungulate populations to the snow leopard's diets may have been understated, as a new study suggests. Stable snow leopard populations are possibly more reliant upon large ungulate prey than previously understood.

This can affect conservation plans because if snow leopards are eating more large ungulates, we need to make sure we're maintaining those large ungulate populations. Otherwise, a population of snow leopards might not survive because there's not enough prey, or they may start eating more domestic livestock, which can cause problems with local human populations. That could result in people going out and killing snow leopards in retribution.

The colleagues analyzed 199 suspected snow leopard scat samples collected from two study sites in Tajikistan and from two study sites in Kyrgyzstan utilizing mitochondrial genetic markers. Overall, only about a third of collected scats thought to be from snow leopards were confirmed as snow leopard, many turned out to be from red fox . The snow leopard samples were most often confused with red fox (Vulpes vulpes) scat, which comprised almost 40% of collected samples.

We don't want to overstate our results because this was just one study, but we did notice that if we were using the blind approach, we definitely had a lot more small mammal occurrence in those scats. When we used genetics to pre-screen the scat and find out which ones were actually snow leopard, there were many fewer small mammals in those scats. It's a little bit of conjecture, but our thought is that a lot of food habit studies that have not been able to verify that their scat is actually from the species that they're studying probably do have this bias soaking in from other species.

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