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article imageNew clues about the decline of snow leopards

By Tim Sandle     Aug 15, 2016 in Environment
Snow leopards are an endangered species. Ecologists have successfully linked the decline to a reduction in the food supply. New research, however, has found the food source that scientists thought was being affected is wrong.
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a large cat species native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. The animal is listed as endangered with no more than 5,000 animals remaining in the wild. Snow leopards have long, thick fur, and their base color varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts.
Due to the decline in numbers and endangered status, snow leopards are the subject of study by biologists keen to identify the conservation measures needed to help the animals to survive and to ideally increase in number. It had been thought that a decline in small mammals affected the available food source to the snow leopard and this was affecting the survival of the species.
However, a new study suggests that previous research has focused on the wrong type of food. The new research indicates the leopards have been consuming larger, not smaller, species. The research makes the point that scientists in the future need to verify, through DNA testing, what an endangered species, like the snow leopard, needs to eat in order to survive.
Biologists from the University of Delaware have found the amount of small mammals snow leopards consume may have been overstated. At the same time, the research has found the importance of large ungulate populations (like ibex) to the snow leopard's diets has been understated and that the snow leopards rely on larger mammals for food to a greater extent.
According to Professor Kyle McCarthy: “We've got this concept of what snow leopard scat looks like and where it can be found, so we think we can go out and collect it. A lot of old studies on what snow leopards eat are based on just that, collections that people have done in the wild.”
The new research has used genetic analysis to examine the diet of snow leopards, by analysing fecal samples, and this has revealed that earlier research was inaccurate and that the snow leopards rely on larger animals for food.
The implications are that conservation efforts need to focus on ensuring snow leopards have a varied supply of food within natural habitats, and that as well as smaller animals there needs to be a balance made up of larger creatures.
The findings have been published in the journal Wildlife Society Bulletin. The research paper is titled “What are snow leopards really eating? Identifying bias in food-habit studies.”
More about Snow leopard, Conservation, Big cats
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