Why we’re a whisker closer to understanding leopards’ diet

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Why we’re a whisker closer to understanding leopards’ diet

Whisker samples show that male leopards are more picky eaters than females

Cape Town bureau chief

The cat’s whiskers are, well, the cat’s whiskers when it comes to decoding their diet.
Single whiskers cut off 36 leopards have revealed what they ate over the previous 150 days, proving that males are pickier eaters than females.
This is probably because females are more restricted in their movements while they are raising cubs, while males can range widely hunting their preferred prey, according to research published in the Journal of Zoology.
Leopards feed on prey ranging from impala, gemsbok, kudu and warthog to hares, but it has been largely unknown whether they specialise in certain prey and what influences their tastes.
Christian Voigt and colleagues from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, investigated these questions by studying the diet of leopards on commercial farmland in central Namibia.While the leopards were sedated to have GPS collars fitted, the researchers cut off one whisker from each of 18 adult females and 18 males.
The whiskers were cut into 5mm segments, and the composition of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in each segment was analysed.
The tissue of prey animals consists of specific isotopes of an element which are characteristic for that species. Once leopards have eaten their prey, its isotope composition is assimilated into the leopard’s body, including their whiskers, according to the relative abundance in the overall diet.
This allows conclusions about the main diet of each leopard and the variety of items it might have consumed.
As the whiskers of leopards grow about 0.65mm a day, each segment corresponded to eight days. The 8cm-10cm whiskers allowed the scientists to look back on approximately 150 days of the feeding history of each animal.
“The females used a significantly wider isotope food niche than males,” said Voigt.Females needed less energy owing to their lower body weight, but were also restricted in their movements when rearing cubs. “The females cannot specialise on certain prey species because the abundance of these species would decrease over time and access to them would become more difficult in their restricted home range when rearing cubs,” said Voigt.
Ecologist said Jörg Melzheimer said this meant they had to feed on a wider range of smaller species than males.
The researchers said the growth in central Namibia’s leopard population could lead to new conflicts with farmers. It is important to be aware of the big cats’ diet, and to develop solutions for potential conflicts in co-operation with farmers.

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