The enigma of the snow leopard, the tremendous predator that additionally eats grass | Science | EUROtoday

Get real time updates directly on you device, subscribe now.

The snow leopard is a felid throughout the order Carnivora. But the examine of the feces of a number of specimens has recognized dozens of plant stays in them. It could possibly be thought that it is because of unintentional ingestion: when looking an ibex or an argali, the 2 goat species that symbolize the majority of their food plan, they might swallow plant stays current of their stomachs whereas they devour them. But when analyzing the depositions of the herbivores, they didn’t discover the identical forms of leaves as these of the felines. There are solely two choices left. Either they eat them to fight starvation or they fulfill some sort of medicinal operate as has been noticed in primates. The authors of the analysis have no idea what clarification to decide on.

The Sarychat-Ertash reserve, within the Tian Mountains, which kinds the border between Kyrgyzstan and China, is dwelling to round twenty snow leopards. This felid occupies the highest of the meals chain in areas of Central Asia, the place it survives surrounded by current threats. Researchers from a number of Japanese universities and the Snow Leopard Trust group have devoted the spring and autumn months from 2017 to 2023 (winter snow and summer time thaw complicate the work the remainder of the 12 months) to gather feces from a dozen species. In addition to the leopard samples, additionally they collected these of two different predators—wolves and foxes—a number of herbivores such because the argali, a ram with imposing antlers, and in addition Asian ibexes. The evaluation within the laboratory additionally recognized depositions of brown bear and marmot, a rodent that can also be a prey of the three carnivores analyzed. In whole they collected 150 fecal samples, 90 of them from leopards.

In his work, printed in Royal Society Open Science, managed to determine the genetic presence of prey in eight of the leopards' feces. But what’s placing is that they discovered plant DNA in 77 of them. They are vegetarian? Professor on the Wildlife Research Center at Kyoto University (Japan), Kodzue Kinoshita, instantly denies this. “There is no doubt that the snow leopard is a carnivore,” says the co-author of this examine. What occurs is {that a} good a part of the plant genetic hint in its feces truly comes from one of many herbivores that it hunted and ate. When they discovered vegetation within the feces, typically they didn’t discover the DNA of any prey, “but in general we detected animal DNA in them,” explains the researcher.

What was intriguing have been the occasions when this was not the case. To rule out that every thing was as a result of unintentional ingestion of the prey's intestinal contents, they carried out an evaluation to see what sorts of vegetation have been current concurrently in the identical fecal pattern. They discovered genetic materials from three giant households, the Poaceae, Asteraceae and Tamaraceae. While the primary two have been in the identical samples with animal stays, the identical doesn’t occur with the third. “The analysis showed that Myricaria sp., which is a dominant plant genus in snow leopard feces, negatively coexisted with prey DNA.” That remains of these deciduous plants typical of the cold continental climate tend to be detected in samples without the presence of animal remains “means that they often devour this shrub deliberately, notably when their digestive tract is empty,” details the Japanese scientist. .

The snow leopard has ceased to exist in much of its original range.  In the image, a specimen from the Bronx Zoo, in New York.
The snow leopard has ceased to exist in much of its original range. In the image, a specimen from the Bronx Zoo, in New York.James Devaney (Getty Images)

But that's as far as Kinoshita goes: they admit they don't know why the largest carnivore in Central Asia eats grass and leaves. In general, plants are not very digestible, unlike animal tissues. The cellulose present in plant cells requires specialized digestive systems, such as those of ruminants. On the other hand, the snow leopard has evolved morphologically, physiologically and behaviorally as a carnivore: its dentition is designed to tear and cut, its taste buds are very sensitive to amino acids (proteins), little sensitive to the sugars present in fruit and poor tolerance to bitter compounds, common in plants. Additionally, it has a very short digestive tract. Nothing makes it easier for you to have a minimally vegetarian diet.

“We don't know why snow leopards eat plants. But based on our previously published articles, we believe that eating them does not help them excrete or vomit up the hairballs that all felines accumulate in their stomach,” says Kinoshita. There is another possibility, also related to health. Some animals, especially primates, use medicinal plants or insects to purge intestinal parasites or heal wounds. Although the technique used in the analysis of the feces did not allow us to lower the level of the genus, among the 13 species that make up the Myricaria spone of them, the M. bracteatais part of traditional Tibetan medicine and contains elements with anti-inflammatory capacity. In the future, this could be clarified, for example, by investigating the medicinal properties and nutritional value of plants, the adaptability to their chemical compounds, the relationship with intestinal bacteria or the relationship between plant-eating behavior with other behaviors,” finishes the Japanese scientist.

Together, the feces of all of the animals analyzed allowed us to know the Sarychat-Ertash ecosystem intimately. In the leopard droppings they discovered DNA from argali, ibex and, to a lesser extent, marmots. The presence is reversed within the case of wolves, which have the big rodent as their major prey. Meanwhile, within the droppings of a middle-class predator just like the fox, they noticed the traces of a number of species of small rodents and hares. They discovered no traces of any argali within the feces of the feminine leopards. For the authors of the work, this could possibly be as a result of the truth that this ungulate is simply too giant for them, since this species presents a marked sexual dimorphism in favor of males.

You can observe MATERIA in Facebook, X e Instagramclick on right here to obtain our weekly publication.