Fewer than 40 Amur leopards can be found in the wild, making it difficult to use traditional methods to track what has impacted the species over time.
University of Minnesota doctoral candidate Sergey Berg published research this year on how Amur leopard cubs’ survival rates impact broader population trends over time. The research, which he began as an undergraduate in 2008, will be used as an example in a book on mathematical modeling.
“You can’t really risk experimenting on animals when there are so few of them,” said the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences student. “I thought it would be cool to look at their population dynamics and analyze a specific aspect of it to try to help their conservation.”
Biologists use reliable techniques like tagging to track and mathematically model larger species populations, but small populations like the Amur leopard are harder to model, Berg said.
The eastern Russia leopards had much larger populations until massive habitat loss and human conflict in the 1900s diminished their numbers. The World Wildlife Fund classifies the species as “critically endangered,” and the large cats only occupy a total area of nearly 1,800 square feet.
Berg’s research focused on modeling what effect the rate at which cubs reach independence from their mothers had on broader population trends. He found that Amur leopard cub survival rates may be higher than any other leopard species, which scientists should consider when comparing population models from species to species.
He originally started the research to test out of an undergraduate engineering class and has been working on getting it published ever since. He went to a conference in Greece this July to present the research, which was then published in the conference proceedings.
The Stochastic Modeling Techniques and Data Analysis International Conference explored mathematical modeling techniques with topics ranging from modeling rainfall and animal populations to tracking mass transit and tourism patterns.
Since he grew up in Russia, Berg said the Russian scientists who were already working on Amur leopard research were more willing to collaborate with him because they didn’t have to translate their pages of reports into English.
In the future, Berg will use similar mathematical modeling techniques to study fisher populations in Minnesota. Fishers are medium-sized carnivores that resemble weasels. Populations have steadily increased since their near extinction in Minnesota in the early 1900s, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Berg said getting his first peer-reviewed research published will help him with future publications.
“Getting an in-depth look at what’s that like was really beneficial to me,” he said, “and will hopefully make it a lot easier to publish further.”