Genetic research allows scientists to discover information about snow leopard populations at the most detailed level. We use this tool to help us understand the diversity of specific snow leopard populations as well as identify individual snow leopards and potentially their relationship to each other. With this information, we can better understand breeding patterns and the overall health of a snow leopard population within a particular habitat area.
If a species has a large genetic diversity, it means that individual populations are healthier and better able to show resilience in case of disease or illness. As is true for all animals listed as endangered, the decreased number of individual snow leopards indicates that the genetic diversity of the species is limited. If it decreases past a certain point, it could mean serious trouble.
In 2009, the Snow Leopard Trust funded the research required to crack the code of snow leopard DNA and answer the question of genetic health and diversity. Dr. Lisette Waits conducted the DNA study at the University of Idaho, and the resulting technique is now a valuable new tool that helps us determine snow leopard population sizes and their overall genetic health.
Animal scat and hairs are collected from the field, and DNA is extracted to determine which type of animal produced the sample. If it was a snow leopard, we take the next step and analyze the specific genetic profile of the individual. This can take time, but the information we collect is invaluable in understanding both the individual cat, and the population as a whole.
This remarkable breakthrough will help us fully understand the issues facing the endangered snow leopard, as well as find the solutions that will help this species thrive. To learn more specifics about Dr. Waits’ research, please visit our blog.