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Weiskopf, S. R., Kachel, S. M., McCarthy, K. P. (2016). What Are Snow Leopards Really Eating? Identifying Bias in Food-Habit Studies. Wildlife Society Bulletin, , 1–8.
Abstract: Declining prey populations are widely recognized as a primary threat to snow leopard (Panthera
uncia) populations throughout their range. Effective snow leopard conservation will depend upon reliable
knowledge of food habits. Unfortunately, past food-habit studies may be biased by inclusion of nontarget
species in fecal analysis, potentially misinforming managers about snow leopard prey requirements.
Differentiation between snow leopard and sympatric carnivore scat is now cost-effective and reliable using
genetics. We used fecal mitochondrial DNA sequencing to identify scat depositors and assessment bias in
snow leopard food-habit studies. We compared presumed, via field identification, and genetically confirmed
snow leopard scats collected during 2005 and 2012 from 4 sites in Central Asia, using standard forensic
microscopy to identify prey species. Field identification success varied across study sites, ranging from 21% to
64% genetically confirmed snow leopard scats. Our results confirm the importance of large ungulate prey for
snow leopards. Studies that fail to account for potentially commonplace misidentification of snow leopard
scat may mistakenly include a large percentage of scats originating from other carnivores and report
inaccurate dietary assessments. Relying on field identification of scats led to overestimation of percent
occurrence, biomass, and number of small mammals consumed, but underestimated values of these measures for large ungulates in snow leopard diet. This clarification suggests that the conservation value of secondary prey, such as marmots (Marmota spp.) and other small mammals, may be overstated in the literature; stable snow leopard populations are perhaps more reliant upon large ungulate prey than previously understood.