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Snow leopards in zoos, do they really want to be alone?

Muni and Marta at Port Lympne Animal Park were part of Alaina Macri's snow leopard behavior research. Photo A. Macri.

Muni and Marta at Port Lympne Animal Park were part of Alaina Macri's snow leopard behavior research. Photo A. Macri.

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.

Guest blogger, Alaina Macri from Edinburgh Zoo recently studied the social behavior of snow leopards in Zoos. Photo A. Macri.

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?

Tara the snow leopard reacting to scents in Alaina Macri's research project at Santago Rare Leopard Project. Photo A. Macri.

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.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Ian John Lord April 28, 2011, 1:31 pm

    Maybe snow leopards are social animals, but because of the higher altitude and the limited amount of prey they have a natural instinct to be isolated to a degree, a survial instinct.

    Just a thought.

  • Elyse April 30, 2011, 2:30 am

    This is great, I absolutely love all cats but the Ounce is my favorite! The Zoo that I keeper volunteer at has apx. 16 year old female Snow Leopard, and she has some very curious behaviors. She had a much younger male companion for years but he was recently sent to another zoo for a breeding program. She doesn’t seem that bothered by the fact he is no longer there, but when he was they got along well and often played or curled up next to or close by each other. She has a strange habit of picking the end of her tail up in her mouth and resting with it in her mouth, occasionally batting the tip hanging out of her mouth with her paw playfully. They both enjoyed playing and often you could get them to follow you along the fence -play stalking.
    Is it possible that because they were born in captivity they are in somewhat of a perpetual cub stage or at least hanging onto some cub characteristics? Example, domestic cats who kneed on blankets throughout their life.

  • Sibylle April 30, 2011, 9:56 am

    Interesting comments you have made, the point about perpetual cub stage has me intrigued. Last year in a US Zoo I saw a young male snow leopard doing the same thing with his tail in his mouth. I certainly hope Alaina will continue with more captive snow leopard behavior studies, there is still so much we don’t know about these beautiful cats.

  • shradhanjali rai September 5, 2011, 5:34 pm

    well Alaina that was a very good attempt to study the behvior of these shy and secretive animals. As a matter of fact we believe that in wild these animals like to live a solitary life but as per my observation the males and the females in captivity are often found displaying visual contact.so as John Lord mention above i think that these animals are quite social in nature.

  • PRAMAN DUTT SHARMA March 17, 2012, 3:07 am

    Hi Sibylle, its great to cu here and exchange views from both ends….
    i want to share one incident in 2007 Leh-Ladhak we saw a snow leopard very close encounter with beautiful big white cat, distance between only 60 to 80 ft. i caught him/her in cam(Still) & (Video) 1min 20 sec raw footage.

    iam become craze and want to went back Leh and make 20 to 30 mints video on snow leopard soon. i know the place where i and my family saw a beautiful snow leopard.

    i looking for a team in future who look after this project with me .

    please if you know more some thing about big cat, please let me now and wish me luck
    iam waiting for ur positive reply.

    Take care…..
    Praman Dutt Sharma

  • Claire Bellot January 13, 2014, 8:43 am

    Is holding their tails in their mouths a common habit of snow leopards? I ask because recently at Salzburg Zoo we saw a female sitting for quite some time with her tail clamped in her mouth. Also, when research this behaviour, I found a photo of another snow leopard in Louisville Zoo doing the same thing, and now I read in Elyse’s comment about the same behaviour. I also noted that they use their tails as a muffler to shield their nose and mouth from the cold, perhaps this is what she was doing.

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