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Big Cat Scat: Grant Boosts Critical Research

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Big cats are shy, nocturnal, and difficult to observe. 

© iStockphoto/Ammit


For the past five years, Museum scientists, in collaboration with the Panthera Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting big cats in the wild, have been tracking tigers, lions, jaguars, and snow leopards through DNA in scat, or fecal specimens, gathered in the field. Now, through a generous grant from the Leslie and Daniel Ziff Foundation, the Global Felid Conservation Genetics Program can accelerate the pace of this important work by expanding the program’s laboratory component.

“We’re very excited about it,” says George Amato, director of the Museum’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and the Center for Conservation Genetics, which is responsible for sequencing the big cats’ DNA and analyzing the results. “In terms of scale, it is now the largest project of its kind in the world.”

Collecting more than 3,000 fecal samples so far and sharing the resulting data free of charge to researchers around the world, the Global Felid Conservation Genetics Program follows animals subject to a variety of threats, from diminished habitat to hunting by traders in body parts. For example, compared to more than 100,000 over a century ago, there are fewer than 3,200 tigers in Asia today, occupying only seven percent of their historic range. The research has yielded some good news—a newly identified population of tigers in Laos; more genetic diversity than expected in some areas—but researchers also found that, in a supposedly protected area in Cambodia, one population of tigers had died out.

Like all animals, big cats must breed with unrelated individuals or suffer a loss of genetic variation and the consequent effects of inbreeding, which weaken and eventually decimate a particular population. Large carnivores, like big cats, require the most space of any species to survive and thrive in the wild, a factor that not only puts them at greater risk from human encroachment but also has implications for the potential cascading effects of their disappearance from their respective ecosystems.

By way of example, Amato cites the consequences of the absence of wolves—before they were restored—in Yellowstone National Park. “The whole ecosystem changed,” Amato explains. “There were too many elk. There wasn’t habitat for certain birds. Vegetation changed.”

Sustainable habitats for big cats require safe corridors through which unrelated cats within a species can come into contact with each other, says Amato, “because even the largest protected areas are too small to have a genetically healthy population.” Reliable information about the breeding range of the various big cat populations will help conservationists determine which initiatives are likely to succeed.

With the rare exception of lion prides that have become habituated to tourists and filmmakers, big cats are shy, nocturnal, and extremely difficult to observe. Genetic monitoring is a huge leap forward in tracking them compared to trip cameras and satellite tags. For one thing, the collection of fecal samples by field biologists, wildlife officials, and others is non-invasive, with no potential for harming the animals. And the results are much more comprehensive, allowing researchers to identify specific individuals and the relationships within populations—the family members, parents, siblings, and most important for assessing healthy breeding habits, the new offspring of particular pairs.

“We’re learning a lot about the natural history of these animals,” says Amato, adding a cautionary note, despite the program’s goal to maximize big cats’ chances of survival: “If they don’t persist in the future, how tragic not to learn all we could.”

This story originally appeared in the Fall issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.

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