Similar to the housecat you might have at home, we already know that snow leopards are most active around dusk and dawn. Research cameras set up across snow leopard range generally confirm this but do not offer many particulars beyond the time, date and temperature. We can only see what the snow leopard is doing at the time of the photo. This is helpful in tracking general movements and identifying individuals but doesn’t provide much insight into their daily activity patterns or in studying seasonal changes.
To conduct a more detailed assessment of the activity patterns of snow leopards, our Senior Scientist Dr. Orjan Johansson examined data gleaned from the GPS collars that we have now used to successfully track the movements of 34 individual snow leopards in Mongolia. In addition to providing regular GPS tracking points, these collars also utilize an activity logger to monitor the animal’s movements in five-minute intervals. He conducted a detailed investigation into the animals’ daily patterns using this fine-scale data.
Orjan confirmed previous assumptions that snow leopards are mainly active at night (nocturnal), with activity peaking at dawn and dusk (crepuscular). It is commonly assumed that predator species would be active at the same time when their prey are active to maximize hunting success. However, our research showed that this generalization did not apply to snow leopards. Our study showed that, unlike the snow leopard’s activity peaks, their prey species, the Ibex, are most active during the day (diurnal), with activity peaks in morning and evening.
Orjan believes it would be difficult for a snow leopard to stalk up to an ibex in daylight. At the same time, while the darkness offers concealment and increased hunting odds, it has its own disadvantages. Unlike the housecat, snow leopards have round pupils instead of slit-like pupils and are not able to see as well in the dark. This might explain why they prefer dawn and dusk, which would offer some concealment while still allowing them to navigate the cliffs and crags of their habitat.
Some other findings were less obvious. The activity patterns showed differences between warmer and colder months. During warmer months, snow leopard activity peaked at dawn, whereas activity peaked at dusk during colder months. The cats were also more active during the day in winter and at night in summer. These findings make sense – a summer day in our study area in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert would be less appealing for a snow leopard than the cooler summer nights, and the sun’s warmth would linger past sunset. But you might be surprised that a winter’s night in this habitat may be too cold even for a snow leopard! Orjan believes that the cats would be able to cope with these more extreme temperatures but seem to adjust their activity patterns based on the time of day most favorable for them as a method of thermoregulation.
Fascinating as it is, how can such information help inform conservation efforts? Most immediately, a better understanding of these daily and seasonal activity patterns can help herders better protect their livestock. These findings suggest that livestock is perhaps most vulnerable to predation by snow leopards around dawn in summer and around dusk in winter, so herders could, to the extent possible, adjust their grazing and protection efforts accordingly.
Understanding how snow leopards behave in relation to temperature can also help better assess how the species could be impacted by ongoing climate change. As temperatures and seasonal weather patterns change in the coming decades, snow leopards may be forced to adjust their existing activity patterns or, at an extreme, reduce their range to more suitable areas. For example, females give birth in early summer and keep their cubs in a den until late summer. During this time, they have higher nutritional needs to produce milk but less time to hunt, as they need to nurse and tend their cubs. If temperatures increase, the time available to hunt may decrease, which could negatively impact denning females and newborn cubs.
There’s so much for us still to learn about this amazing species.
Read the team’s full paper: “Seasonal Variation in Daily Activity Patterns of Snow Leopards and their Prey”
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This long-term ecological study is in collaboration with Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia and Snow Leopard Trust with special thanks to the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism, Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for their support.
SLT would also like to acknowledge: Acton Family Giving, Bioparc Zoo de Doue la Fontaine, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Fondation Segré and Whitley Fund for Nature, Idaho Falls Zoo at Tautphaus Park, Kolmarden Zoo, Korkeasaari Zoo, Nordens Ark, Play for Nature, Tierpark Berlin, The Big Cat Sanctuary/Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Tulsa Zoo, Zoo Basel, Zoo Dresden, Zoo New England and the many incredible partners who have supported programs like our Long-term Ecological Study and research in Mongolia since it began in 2008.