Wildlife & Biodiversity

Snow leopards, iconic carnivore cats of High Mountain Asia, also eat plants: Study

They particularly eat plants of the Myricaria genus when they are hungry

 
By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 11 June 2024

A snow leopard eating plants. Source: Metabarcoding analysis provides insight into the link between prey and plant intake in a large alpine cat carnivore, the snow leopardA snow leopard eating plants. Source: Metabarcoding analysis provides insight into the link between prey and plant intake in a large alpine cat carnivore, the snow leopard

The snow leopard, the iconic predator of the snows of High Mountain Asia, lives in areas above the tree line. But it does eat plants, new research by Japanese scientists has found.

The furry felid particularly eats plants of the Myricaria genus. These plants are mostly shrubs and are found across the temperate parts of Europe and Asia.

The snow leopard is not the first cat to be found consuming plants. There are 41 species of living felids or cats in the world today. Researchers have previously found plants in the faeces of 24 species.

The precise reason why cats consume plants, both in captivity as well as in the wild, is unknown, according to the researchers.

“Among these (24 species), snow leopard feces contained up to 45% Myricaria. However, the inconclusive results fell short of determining whether Myricaria was more present in snow leopard feces than other plants or whether the Myricaria phenomenon was unique to snow leopards,” the researchers wrote.

A team of researchers from Japan’s Kyoto University spent months collecting faecal samples in the remote Sarychat-Ertash Reserve in the central part of the Tien-Shan (‘Heavenly Mountains’) Mountain range’s Uch-Kol River basin in Kyrgyzstan.

They collected faecal samples in November 2017, March and September 2018, May 2019, October 2022 and May 2023. 

Of the 150 mammal faecal samples collected, the scientists were able to identify the host species for 126 samples.

Ninety belonged to snow leopards; 7 to wolves; 9 to red foxes. Three were of brown bears; 9 of ibexes; 7 of argali while 1 belonged to a marmot.

A metabarcoding analysis of the 90 snow leopard faecal samples revealed that the cats most commonly consumed plants of the Myricaria genus.

“Given that felids are essentially carnivores, we were surprised to see a higher frequency of Myricaria in samples with little or no trace of prey animal DNA, suggesting that the plant is consumed by snow leopards when they are hungry,” team leader Kodzue Kinoshita of KyotoU’s Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies in Ecology and Environment, stated in the research.

“Through our innovative research, we anticipate providing insight into improved captive environments and more suitable conservation plans for the snow leopard,” concluded Kinoshita.

Metabarcoding analysis provides insight into the link between prey and plant intake in a large alpine cat carnivore, the snow leopard was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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