A close look across the seemingly flat steppe reveals a landscape dotted with millions of holes. Rodent colonies interconnect in every direction like Swiss cheese. It’s a wonder how the free-ranging livestock roam without constantly stumbling or breaking a leg! The most common of these hole-dwellers are ground squirrels. They’re everywhere!
Watch in front of your vehicle as it rumbles along and you’ll see dozens of them scatter out of the way for their lives. You can’t even find a spot to use as a latrine without hearing the protesting chirps of the burrow residents you’re disturbing.
Another native rodent that is responsible for many of the larger burrows is the marmot. Sometimes snacks for hungry snow leopards, marmots are the largest rodent in Mongolia. After setting up camp in the dark one evening, I discovered early the next morning that my tent was apparently set too close to some marmot burrows. Their frustrated barking was a vexing, yet understandable, reveille.
Hares are also a bountiful food source for many predators. This hare was sitting just a few feet away from where I found some snow leopard sign at the top of a mountain.
Moving on to larger herbivores, Mongolia has about 12 species of ungulates, including red deer, argali, gazelle (as seen in a previous blog post “Where’s Waldo: Mongolia Edition”), and ibex. While checking camera traps, my team came across a natural salt deposit in a valley. There was much foot traffic (or should I say, hoof traffic) from an ibex herd that comes down to lick at the minerals.
The przewalski’s horse, or takhi, can possibly be seen as a “poster child” for the successful recovery effort of an endangered species after it had been listed as completely extinct in the wild in the 1960’s. This is the last remaining, truly wild equine species on the planet since it has never been domesticated. From a captive breeding stock of 13, in which only 9 reproduced, there are now about 1,500 of these horses. Over 300 are in the wild, while the rest are in zoos.
Mongolia has approximately 20 species of mammalian carnivores. Two of these are fox: the globally ranging red fox, and the corsac fox.
Found throughout many steppe and semi-desert regions in Asia, the corsac fox’s yellowish coloring allows it to blend in perfectly with its surroundings. So much so, that the first time I saw one, it was curled up for a nap right next to the “road” my team’s jeep was driving down. By the time I realized what I saw, it was too late! Fortunately, I got a chance to get a few photos of them after seeing others bolt off out of sight beforehand during fieldwork. Upon dozing off from hours of staring out the window in between survey sites, I spotted four small canids wrestling around. “üneg!” (the Mongolian word for “fox”) I yelled, as our driver slammed on the brakes. Corsac fox kits! They were just close enough to watch from where we sat and see well with binoculars, but not quite close enough for a good photo (see “Wheres Waldo..” post for that as well). Surely, the adults were off hunting nearby. Then just on the other side of a hill as we continued our drive, there was an adult poking its head out of a burrow. Score!
The Tibetan wolf, a subspecies of gray wolf, is one of Mongolia’s apex predators. However, they are also known to prey on livestock, causing hatred toward them by herders. Interestingly, despite a common dislike toward them, wolves are traditionally highly respected, and seen as a good luck sign if observed. In fact, a Mongolian saying is that “a wolf will only allow you to see him/her if he/she deems you his/her equal”. Coincidentally, on my first day in the field to a snow leopard site, I spotted a lone wolf casually exploring the far side of a riverbank. Having worked with wolves in the States, I was beyond ecstatic!
When people think of a Mongolian felid, snow leopards usually come to mind, but there is another equally important, yet underappreciated cat. Averaging around 5-9lbs (2-5kg), and recognized for being incredibly fluffy, the Pallas’s cat, or manul, is listed as Near Threatened. Coveted for its soft, warm fur, they are often poached. They are also killed for their fat and organs to be used in traditional medicine as a cure for frostbite. While in Altanbulag as part of a steppe ecology course for graduate school, my class witnessed a local biologist capture and take body measurements of a Pallas’s cat. We also had the privilege of seeing this elusive little felid in a manmade den structure.
Finally, an apex predator that is held is high spiritual regard and believed to be a guardian of the mountains, is the snow leopard (irbis). An endangered big cat found within 12 range countries, there are between 4,000-7,000 left in the wild. Mongolia is estimated to have 500-1,000 snow leopards. As you can see by that rough estimate, there is still much to learn about these highly elusive cats. Commonly referred to as “ghosts of the mountains”, snow leopards are incredibly difficult to study within their rugged, high altitude habitats in which a cat can have a home range of up to 1,000km2. They are continuously threatened by retaliatory killing by herders (even though it is believed that to kill one will bring bad luck on a household), killed by poachers for the traditional medicine trade, habitat degradation from overgrazing livestock outcompeting wild prey, and climate change.