ScienceShot: What the Snow Leopard Ate

Helen Fields is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.

Snow leopards don't invite scientists along on their solitary hunts. So the usual ways to find out what the endangered Asian cats eat are to ask the local people, find the animals' kill sites, or analyze the little presents they leave behind - i.e. collecting snow leopard poop and examining the bits of hair, bone, and teeth that pass through their guts. But a lot of hairs look alike, and scientists have a hard time figuring out if they're looking at scat from a snow leopard or from another local predator. So a group of researchers tried out a new method in the mountains of southern Mongolia: analyzing DNA in 88 fecal samples. Each sample had remains of only one species of prey, the team reports today in PloS One, and there were only five different prey animals: Siberian ibex, by far the most common; the endangered argali sheep; domestic goat; domestic sheep; and, in one sample, a chukar partridge. Wild animals made up 79% of the prey, which is more than other studies have found—and good news for local livestock owners.

See more ScienceShots.

Posted in Plants & Animals