A species ecological niche is the combination of biotic and abiotic parameters that allow it to survive and reproduce. The niche reflects the climatic conditions that the species can tolerate where it can also access the critical resources food and water, shelter or escape from predators including humans, and sites for reproduction. Most large felids are relatively adaptable and able to use a variety of habitats. For example, pumas occur across America from deserts to rainforests and cold-climate mountains.
In Asia and Africa, common leopards roam from deserts to the cold tundra and some even live their entire lives inside large cities. This plasticity increases their chances of survival in a rapidly changing world. However, the snow leopard is completely restricted to the high mountains of Asia. While some carnivore species have used mountains as refuges from human persecution, this does not appear to be the case for the snow leopard. This raises the question of why this particular large cat species should only occur in the high mountains.
In this talk I will describe how and why the snow leopards are tied to their mountainous habitat. In my research we have monitored 37 GPS-collared snow leopards in the Tost Mountains of Southern Mongolia. All resident snow leopards have established their territories within the mountains and none of the about 70,000 GPS locations have been acquired in the surrounding steppe, except when young cats dispersed to neighbouring mountains.
Large carnivores, including snow leopards, do not have specific requirements for reproductive sites, and the climatic conditions are similar in mountains and the surrounding steppe. Hence, we believe the critical resource that prevents snow leopards from settling in non-mountainous habitat must be related to food availability or protection.
Snow leopards have evolved some key adaptations for hunting in mountain slopes: their tails are exceptionally long, acting as counterweights when pursuing prey, while their forelimbs have enlarged musculature facilitating climbing and downhill pursuits. Intriguingly, in contrast to other felids, snow leopards exhibit only small size difference between males and females, with individuals similarly sized across their distribution range.
This indicates that there is an optimal size for hunting in the slopes, limiting dimorphism from sexual selection. When hunting ibex, their main prey, snow leopards do not select the smaller animals like other felids do, but instead select the largest prey classes, prime-aged male ibex, which are two to three times larger than themselves. This indicates that these large ibex prey are more vulnerable and less likely to escape in the mountainous slopes the snow leopards inhabit.
This is because snow leopards commonly ambush prey from above, and the steep slopes make larger prey more vulnerable to the specific attack strategies snow leopards have evolved in mountain slopes. My research is now building a clearer picture of how snow leopards are specifically adapted to these mountain regions, and why conservation efforts in preserving these areas are critical for the preservation of this species.