Our Science and Mongolia Teams have been studying snow leopards as part of our long-term ecological study in the Mongolian Tost Mountains since 2008. An interesting (and strenuous) part of our work to better understand these elusive cats is to collect data on the sites where they hunt and spend their days.
Our camera traps capture their images when they are on the move – patrolling their home ranges and hunting for prey. But, of course, they are cats and can spend up to 18 hours a day resting. This is where our “cluster” studies reveal so much more about this enigmatic species.
What exactly is a cluster?
In this research, a cluster refers to a specific site where we record three or more locations of a GPS-equipped snow leopard over a small area, indicating that the individual spent an extended period of time there. Typically, we program the GPS collars to record a location data point every 5 hours. This means that a cluster of 3 or 4 points indicates that the snow leopard spent 15 or more hours around the same site.
Why do animals stop or return to certain places? It’s pretty simple, says our Assistant Director of Science, Dr. Gustaf Samelius, “because there is something there that is interesting or beneficial to them.” A cluster might represent a hunting site where a cat successfully hunted and fed on a large-sized prey. Alternatively, it rested there, staying safe from risks, including the elements. Or it spent time with a mate or with cubs.
Our GPS-collaring research so far has generated hundreds of thousands of locations from 37 snow leopards, including hundreds of clusters. We typically program each collar to automatically fall off after about 20 months when our team members go and recover it. Our scientists visit the cluster sites and study the surroundings to understand what the individual snow leopard used the site for. This often involves a lot of hiking up and down the mountains. But Gustaf assures us, “It’s one of my favorite aspects of fieldwork.”
How are snow leopards spending their days?
Mostly resting. But where they rest is quite interesting.
A snow leopard’s “kill rate” – how often they hunt – is estimated at one large prey animal about every eight days. Our cluster studies indicate that a snow leopard often stays at its kill for up to 3-4 days. This implies that an individual snow leopard may spend a significant part of their life resting (and eating) at their kill sites. These cluster studies also help understand the hunting habitats of snow leopards and the importance of topography in how and where they hunt.
Interestingly, our cluster data indicate that snow leopards tend to spend longer at sites where they have hunted wild prey compared to sites where they kill livestock – probably because domestic animal kills might be closer to human settlements or in relatively flatter, more accessible –and therefore more risky– areas. Males have typically killed more livestock compared to females, indicating they might take more risks, while females must maximize security, considering they give birth to and look after their offspring.
Speaking of females…
We have learned that females give birth and keep their cubs in a den for about two months. During this time, the cubs stay within the den and the mothers make frequent back-and-forth visits to keep them fed.
Once the cubs start to travel with their mother, they seem to stay hidden for the next 5-6 months while a hunt is in progress. We don’t have direct evidence of this behavior, as only adult snow leopards are equipped with collars. This is inferred because females with cubs make frequent back-and-forth movements around a cluster site, which we have not seen for males or females without cubs.
Based on data from multiple cats, it appears that in Tost Mountains, snow leopards prefer to rest during the day at relatively high places atop a mountain or cliff.
For certain research objectives, we program the GPS collars to record locations at a greater frequency, once every hour. These data showed that snow leopards may move between multiple rest sites close to each other on a given day.
Why are cluster studies important?
According to our Senior Scientist, Dr. Orjan Johansson, “It’s a complex issue, but by looking at hunting and resting behaviors, we can hopefully start to understand some of the factors that explain why snow leopards are restricted to the mountains – something that will be important as climate change impacts their habitat and other potentially competitive species move further up into the mountains.”
This information also lets us classify the type of terrain where snow leopards hunt and rest, which will help us understand what features of the mountains are most important to them. In the long run, this could help inform what type of terrain should be protected from infrastructure development and ultimately shape global conservation efforts.
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Acknowledgments: 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:
National Geographic Society, Acton Family Giving, Bioparc Zoo de Doue la Fontaine, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Idaho Falls Zoo at Tautphaus Park, John Ball Zoo, Kolmarden Zoo, Korkeasaari Zoo, Nordens Ark, Play for Nature, Tierpark Berlin, The Big Cat Sanctuary/Wildlife Heritage Foundation, Tulsa Zoo, Whitley Fund for Nature, 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. We could not do this work without you.