Decoding Snow Leopard DNA and Diversity

By Imogene Cancellare, Ph.D.
Former Project Coordinator, Conservation Genetics

Snow leopard

Imogene Cancellare, a Ph.D. student at the University of Delaware and Panthera collaborator, studies snow leopard genetics. Learn more about her trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2019 to collect snow leopard scat samples and the exciting findings of her study. We hope you enjoy this World Snow Leopard Day blog. 

In the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, I searched and searched — and there it was, a snow leopard scat (dropping). One snow leopard scat sample can uncover much needed-data about the species. However, multi-scale conservation efforts for snow leopards lack information pertaining to their molecular ecology. Molecular ecology research — which incorporates genetic data — helps researchers identify and describe population structure, explain spatial distribution and generate information on evolutionary history. For the last six years, Panthera has been at the helm of an international, collaborative study on the range-wide genetic patterns of snow leopards. For this project, which comprises my Ph.D., I have visited several range countries, including Uzbekistan, China and Kyrgyzstan. We have been busy collecting and processing DNA from scat samples to fill important knowledge gaps on these elusive cats.

Imogene with snow leopard scat
Imogene with the very first snow leopard scat sample of the field season! Taken in the Chon Alai district, Kyrgyzstan.

In August 2019, I worked with Panthera and Ilbirs Foundation to conduct non-invasive scat collection surveys in southern Kyrgyzstan. We set out, hoping to collect samples in areas not yet formally surveyed for snow leopards. On our very first day in the field, we had luck on our side, and discovered a snow leopard scat! This luck stayed with us throughout the trip, and with the help of local communities, we collected more than 60 scat samples. These samples, along with several other hundred others from across the ten snow leopard range countries, were then processed at the National Genomics Center for Fish and Wildlife Conservation in Missoula, Montana.

What have we learned about snow leopards? Across High Asia, we’ve found evidence for low genetic variation amongst the species, potentially lower than that of many other cat species such as tigers, jaguars and lions. We’ve also found that snow leopards have low global population differentiation, which is likely because they are capable of large dispersal distances. 

However, not all snow leopards are created equal, as we’ve found differences across the mountain ranges of High Asia. Based on the samples collected in southern Kyrgyzstan, snow leopards there appear to have slightly higher levels of genetic diversity compared to fellow snow leopards in other portions of their range. This indicates a high degree of genetic connectivity with individuals in the Pamir Mountains, which includes portions of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It also corroborates previous studies on genetic diversity for snow leopards in this region. This isn’t surprising given the topography of these mountains — western Central Asia features the convergence of several huge mountain ranges inhabited by snow leopards. Combined with the presence of such a diverse carnivore community, this region likely supports an abundance of prey for snow leopards and other apex carnivores.

Snow leopard camera trap

Despite connectivity between the mountains in the western portion of the snow leopard’s range, transboundary conservation efforts are a priority for snow leopards. Our results reveal that some areas are experiencing genetic isolation more than others. Many regions of High Asia are naturally fragmented, so even highly mobile species like the snow leopard can become genetically isolated. However, anthropogenic fragmentation is increasing and could exacerbate patterns of isolation. Conservation efforts should emphasize conserving unique genetic diversity and defining appropriate and defensible conservation units. For snow leopards, the genetics-based research happening at Panthera is contributing much-needed information to help conservationists take action. It all starts with a snow leopard scat, but in the end, our work can lead to innovations in conservation for this elusive species.

Learn more about snow leopards.