Image: Snow leopard
Panthera / FFI
Oh hai! A snow leopard checks out a camera trap on a high mountain in Tajikistan.
OurAmazingPlanet
updated 1/27/2012 3:18:36 PM ET 2012-01-27T20:18:36

Snow leopards are one of the most elusive cats on Earth. Not only is the species endangered, but it is notoriously shy, and much about where snow leopards live in the wild remains mysterious.

So researchers got a big surprise when a set of 11 camera traps installed in a lonely corner of Tajikistan revealed at least five snow leopards were living in the region, including a mother with two young cubs.

The motion-sensing camera traps were set high in the remote Pamir Mountains.

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Over the three-month study period, the cameras snapped pictures of a parade of creatures — mountain ibex, Marco Polo sheep (the largest in the world), a rare mountain weasel, a variety of birds and the family of snow leopards. [See photos of the snow leopards and other animals here.]

"This is the first detailed biodiversity survey of the area, and it's very exciting to see so much diversity," lead scientist David Mallon said in a statement. "But the highlight was confirming the presence of what seems to be a healthy population of breeding snow leopards."

Yet when scientists returned to retrieve their camera traps, they found only 10. One had gone missing.

A close look through the piles of pictures revealed the culprits: the two snow leopard cubs.

A companion camera trap to the stolen rig caught the two young leopards red-pawed.

The IUCN, an independent international body that assesses the status of species around the globe, has listed snow leopards as endangered since at least 1986. The big cats, known for their cloudy gray fur and dark spots, are native to Central Asia's high mountains, and their numbers have been decreasing.

Hard numbers are difficult to establish, but it is estimated that between 4,000 and 6,500 snow leopards are left in the wild.  

Despite the fact that researchers found only five cats, they were encouraged by the results of the survey, which was conducted by British-based Fauna & Flora International with the help of U.S.-based big-cat conservation organization, Panthera.

Snow leopards require large swaths of land, and researchers said the region offers a good place to concentrate conservation efforts.

"These survey results demonstrate that there is hope still for the endangered snow leopard," Panthera's Tom McCarthy said in a statement.

The fate of the stolen camera is unknown.

Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanetand on Facebook.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Explainer: Good times of the animal kind

  • Getty Images

    Who knows what's causing this cohort of cubicle warriors to buckle over in laughter, but few humans would disagree that a good chuckle every now and again feels good. Monkeys, dogs and fish get a kick out of life as well, says Jonathan Balcombe, a senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. He has written several research papers and books on animal pleasure, including "Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasures," due out next year. Click the "Next" arrow above for an overview of good times in the animal kingdom.

  • Man's best friend is full of expression

    David Bolton  /  Morguegfile,com

    Dogs, a slate of research suggests, are full of expression. "Those who live with dogs know that by looking at the body posture and the tail movements and the facial expressions and the sounds they make, we can sort of divine how they are feeling; whether they are feeling up or down, excited or grim or guilty, or what have you," Balcombe says. Even people who haven't lived with dogs, studies show, are able to read dog behavior, he adds. "We can only imagine how well dogs can read dogs, but dogs 'dogamorphize,' I suppose, and being dogs — with their keen sense of smell, for example — they get a lot more information than we do."

  • Horses' heart rates drop when groomed

    Reed Saxon  /  AP

    Look to horses for biological evidence that animals can feel pleasure. Balcombe notes that studies have found, for example, that horses' heart rates drop when they are groomed on parts of their necks and withers. A drop in heart rate "is known to be a response to feeling good and feeling relaxed," he says. In this image, Mike Polder comforts his horse Rowdy who was recovering from a West Nile virus infection.

  • Rats like to be tickled

    Brandi Saxton

    When young rats — the rodents that some humans love to hate — are seen running around wrestling with each other, they are actually in what equates to a tickle fight, according to research led by Jaak Panskeep at Washington State University. The rats, it appears, love to be tickled. His work, cited by Balcombe, shows that rats that have been trained to expect a belly tickle will approach a researcher's hand much more quickly than a rat that knows it'll just receive a neck rub.

  • Monkey massages are calming

    Arthur Sevestre

    Observations indicate that monkeys like to cuddle, such as those shown here, and give massages. Balcombe says these rub downs cause monkey blood chemistry and hormone levels to change in ways "that are consistent with what we would find in ourselves when we are receiving a massage." The biochemical finding, he adds, is another window into how animals experience pleasure.

  • Sexual activity not always for procreation

    Mitch Reardon  /  Lonely Planet Images

    As many humans know, sexual activity isn't always for the purpose of making a baby. The animal kingdom is full of examples of creatures that get it on just 'cause, says Balcombe. Among giraffes, for instance, homosexual activity is often more common than heterosexual activity. And even when the act is in the direction of procreation, Balcombe says that most animals probably don't connect the dots between their pleasure seeking and babymaking.

  • Fish go in for a cleaning

    Gerry Allen / The Swedish Research Council

    Balcombe's studies on animal pleasure are, in part, a pushback against the scientific community's penchant for parsing animal behavior in strict evolutionary terms. For example, the relationship between cleaner fish and their clients is often described as one of mutual benefit. The cleaners get food from the parasites on the clients' bodies and the clients get cleaned. "But I think the reason the fish go there is because it feels good. I don't think the fish clients are aware of any health benefit," he says. "So I do think that's a pleasure driven interaction."

  • Squirrels chase each other for fun

    Arthur Sevestre

    The squirrels shown here chasing each other around a tree are just playing around, according to Balcombe. While play behavior may have evolutionary underpinnings such as learning to escape from predators and tackle prey, Balcombe argues in a recent review paper in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science that animals "do not consciously play for ultimate reasons: they play because it is fun to do so."

  • Dolphin looks can be deceiving

    Chris Gotshall  /  Reuters file

    Is this bottlenose dolphin happy to be bonding with her newborn calf? Despite a vast scientific literature on dolphin intelligence and scant doubt that they can feel pleasure, Balcombe says little can be gleaned from their facial expressions. Dolphins, he notes, have fairly fixed expressions. "The important thing with interpreting other animal's feelings is to know the animal, to know their biology, to know how they work," he says.

  • A calf runs free

    Connie Pugh

    Whitaker, a calf freed from a factory farm operation, enjoys a good run in this image. Balcombe, who has been a vegetarian for 25 years, says he grew up eating meat and "grew to love it." He stopped his carnivore ways out of concerns for animal welfare and thinks the growing body of research on animal feelings along with research showing adverse effects on the planet's health from animal agriculture will motivate other people to change their diets too.

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