Many Zoos around the world with snow leopards have to decide if adult cats should be on their own or housed with other cats. In the wild of course, snow leopards are solitary except for a short mating time and when cubs stay with their mother till adulthood at about 2 years of age. One young biologist recently studied snow leopards in zoos to see if they had a preference for company or being on their own.
Canadian born biologist Alaina Macri is our guest blogger and she explains her fascinating research to us. Work like this is important so zoo staff can improve the lives of cats in their care.
Alaina studied in Edinburgh, fell in love with the city as well as a local man, and now works at Edinburgh Zoo. She also works for the American College of Applied Science, teaching online courses in animal welfare and domestic cat behavior. Sounds like two great jobs with beautiful animals.
“My research on snow leopard social behavior was conducted as part of an MSc in Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. Although most students in the course focused their projects on companion or farm animals, a few of us ventured to the zoo world to study more exotic species.
The study looked at 18 captive-born snow leopards, 12 of which were housed socially (that is with another cat) and six that were housed singly. Each group of cats was recorded for 7 days at five UK facilities. We studied two questions – are there benefits to social housing and do snow leopards react to Feliway® a synthetic domestic cat pheromone?
Snow leopards in the wild are solitary but some research done in the 80’s showed captive cats may be more sociable than previously thought. Our findings weren’t conclusive but we saw a tendency for the social cats to show more contented behavior, such as less pacing than the solitary cats. They also displayed a wider range of behaviors such as vocalising and play.
Another area investigated during the study was the amount of time the snow leopard pairs spent in contact/close proximity (1.5-2.0m) with their enclosure mates.
The breeding pair, Muni and Marta, spent 97% of their time either in contact with each other or in close proximity.
The second part of the study introduced Feliway®, a domestic cat pheromone used in cat behavior therapy. Again the stats were inconclusive, however some cats did seem to notice the new scent in their enclosure and were seen scratching, scent marking and face rubbing on or near where the Feliway was sprayed. It is very difficult to interpret what the snow leopard thought of the smell, did they react as they would any new smell or were they deciphering it as another cat? We really need more research to understand this.
I would absolutely love to continue with snow leopard and other big cat research in some way. Hopefully one day I will make it out there to see if I can help the leopards in the wild.”
Thanks for sharing this interesting work, Alaina. The full report of Alaina’s research is published in the March 2011 issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science.