Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Cat scat: Research examines food habits of snow leopards

Date: August 4, 2016
Source: University of Delaware

In order to create effective conservation programs to help protect and conserve populations of endangered snow leopards, whose estimated population is between 4,500-7,500 in the wild, University of Delaware researchers are studying their scat to try and understand what the large cats are eating.

While studying snow leopard scat is one of the least invasive ways to look at what the animals are eating and gauge their food preferences, according to a new UD study it may not always be the most accurate. Researchers found that past food-habit studies on snow leopards could have been biased by the inclusion of non-target species in fecal analysis, potentially misinforming managers about the prey requirements that allow snow leopard populations to succeed.

The research was led by Sarah Weiskopf, who recently received her master's degree from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and who did the work as part of her undergraduate senior thesis; Kyle McCarthy, assistant professor of wildlife ecology; and Shannon Kachel, a graduate student who works with McCarthy. The findings were published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

As a result of non-target species possibly being included in past research studies, it has been thought that snow leopards -- who lack an abundance of natural prey -- consume great numbers of small mammals such as marmots, hares and pika, as well as wild ungulates, which are larger hooved animals such as ibex.

While estimates of the amount of small mammals snow leopards consume may have been overstated, the importance of large ungulate populations to the snow leopard's diets may have been understated, as this study suggests stable snow leopard populations are possibly more reliant upon large ungulate prey than previously understood.

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