Mongolia Science

The Ring of Darhad:

Wildlife Survey of the Darhad Region of Mongolia.

F. McCarthy*, G. Treinish*, R. Watters*, J. Wilmot*,  J. Harris*, J. Copeland†, L. Craighead†, C. Montagne†; *Field Team; †Science Advisory Board

Project Summary
The Darhad region of Mongolia represents one of the world’s least known regions when it comes to wildlife species. The Mongolian government has called for surveys of all of Mongolia’s wildlife species, but faces challenges to conducting research on elusive and difficult-to-study species such as wolverine.

In March, 2013 our team will attempt a circumnavigation of the Darhad region to conduct a systematic survey the region’s wildlife, with the specific goal of gathering DNA evidence of wolverines. The team’s overarching goal is collection of wolverine DNA to contribute to the existing database of Mongolian wolverine genetic samples. The team will also locate sites for further, more in-depth study of the region’s wolverine population, so that Mongolian scientists and wolverine biologists associated with the Wolverine Foundation (TWF) and the Mongolian Wildlife and Climate Change Project (MWCCP) can learn more about the species in Mongolia.

Wolverine researchers Rebecca Watters, Jason Wilmot and Jeff Copeland have conducted interview surveys, habitat assessments, and DNA sample collection from pelts during summer expeditions in wolverine habitat across Mongolia. Based on this efforts, we know that a population of wolverines exists in the Darhad region, but understanding the population dynamics, human threat levels, and the ecology of the species in this region will be critical as wolverines begin to feel the effects of climate change due to diminishing suitable habitat. To better understand how climate change affects wolverines, we need data on demographics – how wolverines are reproducing and dispersing. Understanding demographics requires much more intensive study, usually with radio collars, camera stations, and further genetic analysis. This expedition will help find places to put camera stations for further study. Ultimately, the scientists from the MWCCP hope that this expedition will contribute baseline information to the ongoing effort to create a monitoring and conservation plan for wolverines in Mongolia.

We anticipate covering a route of approximately 400 miles as we travel through what scientific modeling suggests is the most significant block of wolverine habitat in Mongolia. The route will circumnavigate the Darhad valley and travel through the Sayan and Horidol Sardag mountain ranges. 

The Method
Our primary goal will be to document the presence of wolverine and wolverine prey species in the area. Using non-invasive survey techniques including back-tracking, and the collecting of hairs, scats, and urine for DNA analysis, we will attempt to establish the distribution and relative density of wolverines in the area. Surveying during the wolverine denning season also offers the opportunity to explore areas of high-density tracks and possibly discover den sites, which would constitute the first recorded wolverine dens in Mongolia. Documenting den sites is important for detection of reproductive potential.

Throughout the journey we will identify and count wildlife tracks, note the size and composition of any wildlife groups we come across including sex and number of young present. We will record rough perpendicular distance to animals we see, GPS mark tracks, wildlife, and other wildlife signs. We will note predator kills, and, in the case of male argali and ibex, the number of horn rings for age.

Species of interest:
– elk (Cervus elaphus)
– wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
– Siberian roe deer (Capreolus pygargus)
– Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus)
– wild boars (Sus scrofa)
– ibex (Capra sibirica)
– argali sheep (Ovis ammon)
– wolves (Canis lupus)
– snow leopards (likely extirpated, but anecdotal reports still exist) (Uncia uncia) –
– wolverines (Gulo gulo)
– sables and martens (Martes spp.)
– Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx)
– Pallas’ cats (Felis manual)
– foxes (Vulpes spp.)
– Eurasian otters (Lutra lutra)
– hares (Lepus spp.)
– marmots (Marmota spp.)
– brown bears (Ursus arctos)
– pika spp. (Ochotona spp.)
– other small weasels (Mustela spp.)
– altai snowcocks (Tetraogallus altaicus)
– Capercallie (Tetrao urogallus)

Anticipated Outcomes
Conducted within the mission of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, we anticipate our research will greatly increase the current knowledge of wildlife species in the Darhad region. We anticipate the collection of wolverine DNA in an area of long-term interest to the global wolverine research community. The data from these surveys will complement expedition scientists’ Rebecca Watters and Jason Wilmot’s on-going and longer-term work on wolverines, pikas, and other climate- sensitive wildlife in the Darhad region. Data-analysis under the direction of the MWCCP will contribute to peer-reviewed work on Darhad wildlife in coming years. In addition, we will work with various media sources to document and publish our experience with the goal of drawing public attention to sensitive high altitude ecosystems in a context of global climate change affects on these systems worldwide.