Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

Look – a Chamois! 

We are excited to welcome Dr. Deborah Leigh to the blog today. Deborah is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Although Deborah is a seasoned Field Biologist, today she writes about her first adventure in the field doing her own work! For more about Deborah, see the end of this post. 

Fieldwork for me has taken many forms. It has ranged from a few exhausting hours scrambling around the Alps to get Ibex tissue samples, to months at remote field stations, living and breathing for each data point or blood sample. But whatever the length, location or purpose, fieldwork has always been inspiring. Sure you have the moments where you are wet, grumpy, tired, and probably shouldn’t have just said what you did to your equally soggy companion, but being in the field and seeing your study organism is blissful to me. (I write this of course, from the warm and dry of my office. So the field’s gifts of blisters, bruises from falls (every time I go into a forest!), and damp socks, have been erased by nostalgia.)

Though I was lucky enough to do fieldwork from early on in my Bachelor’s degree, the first time I went into the field for myself was during my PhD. (Sadly, I never saw the elusive Corncrake from my Master’s in the wild.) So it was with impish glee that I stumbled upon my first Alpine Ibex at the top of Pilatus in the first month of my PhD. There she was, hiding in amongst the rocks, basking in the sun.

The first Ibex I saw

For those of you who have been to Pilatus, you will know that this is not a difficult site to reach. There is a funicular train that takes you up to the top of the two thousand meter peak, and you will probably see Ibex from the train if you are lucky. Due to the accessibility of the site, I shared my profound moment of scientific development with two tourists who insisted that my Ibex was, in fact, a Chamois. (Dude, no – just no).

For me, however, the journey to this Ibex was so much more arduous then the planes, trains and automobiles the tourists had used to arrive on the peak.  I had moved to Switzerland only weeks before, starting my PhD immediately after finishing my MSc and spending a field season in New Zealand. Needless to say, I was exhausted and felt completely out of my depth. My lab mates all seemed very tall, very wise, and painfully smart.  No one understood my British sarcasm; in fact, they initially thought I was horribly rude because of it. And I certainly did not understand Swiss German.

However that moment of seeing an Ibex amongst the rocks made me glow with happiness. The angst and exhaustion melted away and I knew I was working on something I found amazing and I would make the most of this – if not for me then for the Ibex. In amongst the tourists’ Chamois proclamations, I snapped a picture that still fills me with the joy and peace of that moment.

I guess my point is that though fieldwork physically serves a purpose in many graduate student projects, it should also form a part of those for which it isn’t ‘essential’. Without those amazing moments, you might never have a fire for your project, and you really need that fire in your gut to drag yourself through a PhD.

Fieldwork doesn’t have to be an epic saga where you sit in a tent for 6 months and grow increasingly mouldy; it can be a few hours or days of just observing. I think that’s important to say, because many field biologists look down on fieldwork that isn’t all encompassing. But there’s no reason they should: the point of fieldwork can be scientific exploration, collection, or inspiration, and it can be a sprint or a marathon. Whatever lights that fire and keeps you going through the dark tunnel of the thesis write-up work for me.

So go get your boots muddy.

 

Deborah is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada. She currently works in the Friesen lab, using genomic tools to understand local adaptation in Seabird populations. Her career has taken her from Edinburgh University (BSc), to Imperial College London (MRes), to the University of Zurich (PhD). She dabbled in behavioural ecology before moving to genetics and then genomics. Deborah has done field work in the Cairngorms (Hoverflies), St Kilda (Soay Sheep), New Zealand (Hihi project), Switzlerand and Italy (Ibex). You can read more at https://deborahmleigh.weebly.com/