Thursday, 7 June 2012

Finding leopard kill sites with GPS collars

Ross baiting a tree with a wildebeest leg in an attempt to
catpure a leopard for collaring.
Ross Tyzack Pitman has just completed  his undergraduate Conservation Biology course with us. His final-year project used a combination of GPS collars and computer analysis to identify potential leopard feeding sites, followed by painstaking fieldwork to visit the sites for confirmation. The project was submitted for marking four months early, so that work could begin on a paper for publication. This paper has just been accepted by the Journal of Zoology.

The paper was co-authored with Lourens Swanepoel (University of Pretoria) and Paul Ramsay (here in Plymouth). The paper is not yet published but should appear in the Early View section of the journal’s webpage before it finally finds its way into the journal.

Ross Taking blood and other
morphological data from one
of the studied leopards.
The basic idea underpinning the work is that leopards move around whilst foraging, but after a kill remain in roughly the same place for a while during feeding and digestion. By monitoring GPS locations every two hours, potential kill sites could be identified. The paper looks at how well this technique worked for leopards in mountainous terrain in a South African private reserve. 

Leopard LF-1 with a GPS collar. The
collars were programmed to transmit
the location of the animal every two
hours, and to detatch automatically
at the end of the study period.
Photo: Ross Pitman.
 It worked pretty well. Clusters of GPS points, close together in time and space, allow researchers to find kill sites much more efficiently. Once a kill site has been found, more detailed studies can be made in the field and lab to investigate things like prey composition, predation habits and requirements, and competition between species.

Ross is now working on more publications (this time based on his time on placement in South Africa). These include studies of prey composition from faecal analysis and the preferences of mountain leopards for particular prey or habitats. In the meantime, Ross’ literature review has already been accepted for publication in The Plymouth Student Scientist.  This journal publishes a selection of work by Plymouth undergraduates, including articles on conservation biology. Ross’ paper will be published in the next issue, this September, and is entitled, “The conservation biology and ecology of the African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus”. If you are interested in leopards, it would make an interesting read.
Collecting environmental variables at a cluster site, but no kill was found here.
Photo: Ross Pitman.

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