Sarah Weiskopf, an honors student in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology (ENWC), presented her poster earlier this month at the National Wildlife Society Meeting in Milwaukee, WI.
The poster, titled, “What do snow leopards really eat? Using genetics to reduce bias in food habit studies,” placed third place at the conference amongst undergraduate presenters.
Weiskopf is completing her senior thesis in Kyle McCarthy’s Rare and Elusive Species Lab, where she works closely with Shannon Kachel, graduate student in ENWC, on snow leopard ecology.
As for the specifics of her research, Weiskopf explained that knowing what snow leopards—an endangered species that live high in the mountain areas of central Asia–eat is critical to their survival. “One of the reasons they’re endangered is lack of natural prey species so it’s really important to have accurate information on what they’re eating for management plans and conservation initiatives.”
Weiskopf, who is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) EPSCoR program, and the ENWC department and works with data from Panthera– a global wild cat conservation group–and samples collected by Kachel, said that their research found that snow leopards’ diet consists mainly of large mammals. “When we looked at all the samples that we collected, we found that small mammals like hares and Pikas were not as important in snow leopard diet as we previously thought, and they were actually eating a lot more large mammals like Ibex and Argali.”
The problem with the snow leopards’ diet consisting mainly of these two species is that they are both in danger as well, with both being targets of hunting and poaching and Argali being classified as an endangered species.
“They’re competing with domestic livestock for the food resources in the area and so when you have less natural Ibex and Argali populations, the snow leopards will turn more to eating domestic livestock which creates problems with humans in the area,” said Weiskopf.
Weiskopf said that she is very thankful that she gets to work with Kachel and McCarthy, assistant professor in ENWC, on the project, saying that they both have been very supportive and helpful, even allowing her to work in the lab on her own which she said was a great learning experience.
She also said that the conference was a great experience because she got to listen to a lot of wildlife biologists talk about their respective projects and had the opportunity to present her own work.
As for her work with snow leopards, Weiskopf said that if she continues to study the species, she would love the opportunity to travel to central Asia to study them in the wild, something she might not have known about herself had she not gotten this opportunity.
“It wasn’t something that I thought about before. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I really want to study snow leopards’ but it was definitely a really cool project to get involved in.”
Article by Adam Thomas