Images captured in western China last year suggest the reigning big cat of high-elevation Central Asia – that grey ghost called the snow leopard – may be getting some company.

As the BBC reports, camera traps in Qinghai Province showed both snow leopards and common leopards (likely of the North Chinese subspecies) in the same area, the first time such direct habitat overlap has been documented on the Tibetan Plateau.

Video courtesy of Shan Shui/Panthera/SLT/SEEF/GZC.

What's more, among the common leopards recorded was a female with a cub, suggesting the cats are not just exploring – they could be establishing themselves in this lofty landscape.

The observation raises further questions about the potential impacts a warming climate may have on the snow leopard, a subalpine and alpine specialist with substantially less ecological wiggle room than its larger, yellower, more adaptable relative. Snow leopards typically reside at elevations between 9,800 and 17,000 feet (though in the northern part of their range in Mongolia and Russia, they'll venture as low as 3,000 feet or so.)

The female common leopard with cub in tow. Video courtesy of Shan Shui/Panthera/SLT/SEEF/GZC.

Across their enormous geography, meanwhile, common leopards aren't necessarily strangers to upper elevations. From the montane heathlands of Mount Kenya to the alpine meadows of the Caucasus region, these habitat generalists certainly stalk the high country on occasion. But overall, they're more common in forested landscapes lower down, which makes their appearance on the doorstep of snow-leopard territory a potential harbinger of larger-scale landscape change to the snow leopard's turf: namely, mountain woods on the march upslope.

In Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park – which includes Mount Everest in its bounds – research has revealed extensive dietary overlap between the two cats, with both favouring Himalayan tahr (a goat-antelope), musk deer and domestic livestock.

Despite this shared on-the-hoof menu, however, Sagarmatha's spotted cats mostly segregated themselves by habitat: snow leopards preferring alpine shrublands and grasslands, and common leopards favouring the forest belt below. Because tahr, musk deer and cattle seasonally drift between these areas, both common and snow leopards can stalk the same quarry in their respective preferred haunts.

But as Himalayan forests "climb" the mountainsides in response to increasing temperatures, common leopards may move with them – possibly ramping up competition between the two cats.

Camera trap images showing snow leopards inhabiting the same territory as common leopards. Image © Panthera

And that's just one part of the snow leopard's habitat woes. As suitable territory between timberline and mountaintop shrinks, the cats could also hit a physiological ceiling on their climb upslope, where lack of oxygen would block their way.

Only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards likely remain in the heights of Central Asia: from Russia in the north to Bhutan in the south, and from Afghanistan in the west to China in the east. A study from last year suggested that the high-country prowler could lose as much as half of its current territory to global warming by 2070.

The research also identified three great mountain strongholds – the Altai, Qilian and Tian Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush-Karakoram ranges – whose high steppes have long provided stable, core habitat for snow leopards and which could serve as vital climate havens in the future.

But how might snow leopards be impacted by the presence of heftier common leopards in their neighbourhood? At this point, it's not at all clear whether common leopards would actively displace their woollier cousins, or whether the two would sort out ways to minimise head-to-head competition.

"The possibility for co-existence or conflict highly depends on the abundance and diversity of wild prey," conservationist Wen Cheng told the BBC.

As for local speculation in China of snow and common leopards not only crossing paths but also getting frisky (as in the occasional grizzly-polar bear hybrids documented in the Canadian Arctic), Panthera's Byron Weckworth is doubtful. "The common leopards there are more pale in colour and that may have sparked that kind of perception among locals," he told the BBC. "But from a biological point of view, it's extremely unlikely that they can hybridise." 

The common leopard isn't the only fellow big cat to occasionally tread into the snow leopard's kingdom. In Jigme Dorji National Park in Bhutan's Himalaya, for example, Bengal tigers have lately been recorded beyond 13,000 feet – even killing Himalayan black bears up there. Researchers suspect warming temperatures and rising timberlines might explain the appearance of the striped cats at such elevations, although human persecution and habitat loss in the lowlands could also be a driving force.

Meanwhile, the Qinghai Province camera-trap location prowled by both snow and common leopards has documented quite the roster of other large mammals, as this Panthera blog post (from last year's International Snow Leopard Day) reveals. Photographs also show Tibetan brown bear, red fox, Eurasian lynx and white-lipped deer passing through the same real estate.

A collection of camera-trap images taken in Qinghai Province. Images © Panthera.


Images and video courtesy of global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera.

Top header image: Mark Dumont, Flickr