Snow leopard genes could help estimate populations

15 October 2008
From New Scientist Print Edition.
A genetic test specific to endangered snow leopards can pin down vital information on their numbers and diversity from the animals’ faeces. What is more, a pilot study has found that some faeces thought to come from snow leopards were actually from foxes or lynx – a disturbing sign that estimates of snow leopard numbers may be far too high.
Some 4000 to 7000 snow leopards are thought to remain in high-altitude regions of central Asia. The area’s inaccessibility makes the population hard to count. Camera-trap surveys can record individuals, but are costly and time-consuming. Searching for traces such as shed fur or faeces is faster, but can yield only indirect estimates.
Genetic testing would be more precise, but efforts to date have been disappointing: testing fur proved impractical because shipping samples across international boundaries requires special approval, while standard genetic primers based on domestic cats were not reliable when testing the degraded DNA in faeces. This led co-author Jan Janecka of Texas A&M University to develop tests specific for snow leopard DNA in scat.
Trials using the new approach in China, India and Mongolia show it is much more reliable and can even identify individual snow leopards (Animal Conservation, vol 11, p 401).
That information is crucial for conservation, says co-author Rodney Jackson of the Snow Leopard Conservancy of Sonoma, California, which has plans for an expanded testing programme.
From issue 2678 of New Scientist magazine, 15 October 2008, page 6
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