Monday, May 19, 2008

Conservation of High Mountain Ecosystems: The Snow Leopard as a Role Model

Like with any ecosystem, the best conservation effort is no effort at all—at least no human effort as long as a system is healthy and has not significantly been changed by human interference. Key to the “healthy maintenance” of ecosystems are keystone species. The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) is an excellent example of a high mountain keystone species [1]:

As the top carnivore of the alpine and subalpine zones [of Central Asia], the snow leopard strongly influences the numbers and whereabouts of hoofed herds [for example of animals such as sheep, ibex, argali, tahr, goral, serrow, Tibetan antelope or wild yak] over time. That in turn affects plant communities and thus shapes the niches of many a smaller organism down the food chain. The leopard's presence—or absence—affects competing hunters and scavengers too, namely wolves, wild dogs, jackals, foxes, bears, and lynx. This cascade of consequences makes Uncia uncia a governing force in the ecosystem, what scientists term a keystone species.

Which species is functioning as a keystone species, for example, in the European Alps or the Sierra Nevada in the western part of the United States? Is homo sapiens a keystone species?

[1] “Out of the Shadows. The elusive Central Asian snow leopard steps into a risk-filled future.” by Douglas H. Chadwick and Steve Winter in National Geographic, Vol. 213, No.6, pages 106-129, June 2008.

Snow leopard dictionary
Ladakhi: shan
Mongolian: irbis
Urdu: barfani chita
German: Schneeleopard (only found in zoos in German-speaking areas)

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