Dogs Helping Cats: When Snow Leopards and Wolves Share Prey

By Shannon Kachel
Conservation Scientist

Snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan

We’re showcasing the ways in which different species interact and help each other survive. In the snowy, towering mountains of Central Asia, two carnivores, one cat species and one dog species, help each other. In this blog, Panthera scientist Dr. Shannon Kachel discusses his recent study documenting these behaviors. 

Setting the Snow Leopard’s Scene 

The snow pours down above me as the wind pounds the peaks of some of the largest mountains on Earth, sending a tremor through the valley below. It's wintertime in Central Asia, one of the harshest climates in the world. What am I doing here? Studying snow leopard prey, a herd of sheep, of course.

Argali rely on their speed to escape from wolves
Argali rely on their speed to escape from wolves.

But it’s worth risking frostbite. This is not an average herd of sheep — these are argali, the largest species of wild sheep on the face of the Earth. As I try to estimate their numbers, a shrill, biting howl pierces the frosty air — a wolf, the argali’s primary predator. 

That’s why I’m here. Because among the craggy, rocky slopes behind me, lives another carnivore and its primary prey — the snow leopard and the Siberian ibex. It’s how they interact with wolves and argali that brought me to this desolate yet wondrous mountainous arena. The snow is picking up, but my work has only begun. 

Tracking Four Species Through Steep Mountains 

I’m here to study how snow leopards and wolves together influence prey behavior, the first step towards understanding how these two species jointly shape their shared ecosystem. Carnivores can affect their ecosystems not only by hunting and consuming their prey (and of course, leaving carrion and nutrients behind) but by changing prey behavior as well. Through the course of my research with Panthera, I’ve found that in winter, the sprinting, speedy argali typically prefers to inhabit the rolling plains of the valley floor patrolled by pack-hunting wolves. The dexterous, rock-hopping ibex, on the other hand, scrambles among the crags and cliffsides where snow leopards, ambush hunters, like to roam. But to fully understand how prey respond to predation risk, we need to understand how short-term tactics to evade a pursuing predator interact with long-term strategies — and we need lots of data.

Researchers and veterinarians fit a GPS collar on a male snow leopard
Researchers and veterinarians fit a GPS collar on a male snow leopard.

Over four winters, we collected data by tracking the movements of argali, ibex, snow leopards and wolves and observing the behavior of the two prey species. This work required that my team and I fit snow leopards and wolves with GPS tracking collars. When it came to the wolves, this was relatively difficult work, not even considering the perilous terrain and weather — compared to snow leopards, wolves are very clever, and much more likely to evade a trap (and then remember how to avoid it). 

Cats Help Dogs — and Biodiversity 

We found that for prey forced to contend with multiple predators, behavioral adjustments made to avoid one predator can have unanticipated and deadly consequences — argali that scramble up onto steep slopes to escape a pack of wolves are comparatively defenseless in the face of snow leopard predation, just as ibex are distinctly vulnerable to wolf predation on flat ground. By pushing wary prey back and forth between their two domains, wolves and snow leopards can inadvertently benefit each other by serving up an easier meal. Cats were helping dogs, and vice versa. All four species have a part to play in the other’s survival.

Map of interactions
The researchers weighed the evidence for and against multiple alternative hypotheses to explain ibex and argali behavior with respect to wolf and snow leopard predation risk.

I hope this stresses the importance of biological diversity. Here and elsewhere, the cats that Panthera aims to protect shape their communities and are shaped by them, in turn. I also hope this research helps open a new door in snow leopard conservation: we often ask how many snow leopards are out there and where, but much of their ecology remains overlooked. I hope this paper challenges that norm.

Wolves proved to be far less cooperative as study subjects than snow leopards.
Wolves proved to be far less cooperative as study subjects than snow leopards.

Perhaps most importantly, these results show the importance of wolves in this ecosystem. In my time in Central Asia, I’ve repeatedly found that local communities almost universally despise wolves because of livestock predation, an ever-present threat to pastoralists’ livelihoods. Furthermore, I’ve also encountered conservationists who advocate for wolf removal to increase the amount of prey available for snow leopards. I hope my study allows wolves to join the narrative in the story of Central Asia’s conservation journey. Snow leopards and wolves can, in fact, facilitate each other’s survival in this harsh, unforgiving ecosystem. Among avalanches, blizzards, rocky slopes and dramatic peaks, dogs are helping cats in more ways than one. 

Read the full paper in the Journal of Animal Ecology. 

Learn more about snow leopards