Where the wild things go

A new paper by Snow Leopard Trust scientists shows how dispersing young snow leopards can navigate and travel long distances in flat terrain in search of territories. It also reveals what triggers them to set out and how fences and linear infrastructure can disrupt their movements.

Understanding how landscapes affect animal movements is critical for effective conservation and management. From a snow leopard’s perspective, a landscape is variable and consists of steep hills or flat valleys, areas rich or poor in prey abundance, areas that have good or poor hunting sites, etc. Individual animals settle in areas that fit their needs. However, when young individuals disperse from the area where they were born, they may need to travel through terrain that is unsuitable, such as areas with no water or poor in prey abundance.

Knowledge of how different landscape features affect snow leopards’ ability to move around can help identify important corridors between mountains and assess how connected the populations are. In the paper, the researchers describe the independent movements of three young snow leopards that crossed long distances on the steppe (vast flat grassy plains) in their attempts to reach the next mountainous habitat. If you’re a snow leopard, the landscape surrounding the Tost Mountains, our study area in South Gobi of Mongolia, can be compared to an archipelago where the mountains constitute suitable islands and the surrounding steppe represents the unsuitable sea. 

While crossing the steppe, the snow leopards typically traveled at night, and moved more than six times faster than they do in the mountains. This behavior indicates that snow leopards perceive the flat steppe as dangerous, hence the need to travel fast under the cover of darkness. The longest distance a snow leopard traveled in the steppe was almost 160 km. One snow leopard traveled south towards the border between Mongolia and China, where it appears to have encountered a border fence it was unable to cross, illustrating how linear infrastructure like border fences or fenced railway tracks can isolate snow leopard populations.

A fascinating finding of this research is that the dispersing snow leopards traveled towards the next  mountain range that was visible from their departure points in Tost. This suggests that relatively undisturbed flat areas themselves may not be isolating snow leopard populations, as dispersing snow leopards can cross long distances on the steppe, provided that there are visible mountains to aim for at their departure points. On the other hand, human-built structures such as fences hinder their movements and can cause populations to get disconnected and fragmented.

This study underscores the importance of a landscape approach when working to conserve species such as snow leopards that have extensive spatial requirements. Even though the steppe is not a habitat for snow leopards, in the sense that they do not settle there, it can serve as an important travel corridor that connects populations. Linear infrastructure like fences, roads and mining developments fragment the landscape and can disrupt the natural movement of snow leopards and their prey, and must be planned carefully.  

The full paper titled: Natal dispersal and exploratory forays through atypical habitat in the mountain-bound snow leopard can be read here

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Photo credits: SLCF-Mongolia


We are thankful to the Ministry for Environment and Green Development, the Government of Mongolia, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences for supporting our work. We thank the Disney Conservation Fund, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, National Geographic Society, and the Whitley Fund for Nature for their support.

One Comment

  1. Fascinating. Just another way people can interfer with animal behaviour that we never knew or thought about. So…if I can see it, then I can go there. Smart and cool.

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