Snow leopards are elusive creatures – difficult to spot in the wild and even trickier to research. Seeing them in their natural habitat is rare, so it’s downright extraordinary for anyone to find a brand new snow leopard cub in its den.
An international team of researchers recently managed to do just that, and the information they’ll gain may help the species survive.
“We still know very little about how snow leopards reproduce in the wild,” said Charudutt Mishra, Science and Conservation Director for the Snow Leopard Trust. “Getting the rare opportunity to observe a cub in its den is huge for us.”
This was only the second time anyone had ever encountered a cub in its den, according to the Snow Leopard Trust. Significantly, this was the first time researchers have found such a cub and know who its parents are.
Since 2008, a scientific team has conducted a long-term study of snow leopards in Mongolia’s South Gobi desert. They track the big cats with GPS collars and research cameras, trying to gather data that will help save this endangered species.
For some time, the team had been tracking two adult leopards known as Agnes and Ariun. The team noticed earlier this spring that the two were spending a lot of time near one another, which suggested they might be mating.
A few weeks later, Agnes began acting very much like an expectant mother. She limited her movements in a way that caused the researchers to believe she would soon give birth. The team allowed enough time to go by for the blessed event to happen, and then used Agnes’ GPS collar to locate the den.
After ensuring Agnes was far enough away, the team entered the den and found a two-week-old cub. Acting quickly, they carefully took hair samples, weight and other measurements, implanted a microchip, and took photos. The hair samples will confirm the cub’s sex and reveal whether Ariun is the father.
The team has been working for years to document snow leopard birth rates, sex ratios, litter sizes, cub survival rates and more. Following this family unit will help the scientists better understand snow leopard family behavior.
“Beyond conception, very little is known about the role of snow leopard fathers in the wild,” said Gustaf Samelius, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Assistant Director of Science and a researcher with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. “Being able to monitor both parents of a newborn cub as it grows could yield exciting new insights, so we’re eagerly awaiting the results of genetic analysis to see if Ariun is indeed the cub’s father.”
Only about 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are left in the wild. The live mostly in the rugged and precarious Central Asian mountains, where they hunt goats and wild sheep. Cubs will begin to follow their mothers during hunting expeditions at around 3 months of age. They will stay with their mothers through the winter months.
Good luck and welcome to the world, little snow leopard. May you and your species survive and thrive in your lonely mountain habitat.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Krockenberger, courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust