The snow leopard is known for its beautiful thick fur and elusive behavior. Their white-gray coat spotted with large black rosettes helps it to blend in perfectly with the steep and rocky mountains of Central Asia.
The snow leopard’s (Panthera uncia, previously known as Uncia uncia) thick coat, heavy fur-lined tail and paws covered with fur make it perfectly adapted to live in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. However, even in the barren landscape of their high-altitude home, human threats have created an uncertain future for the cats.
In a recent research paper published in the Journal of Heredity, it has been revealed that there are three sub-species of snow leopard. Until now, it has been assumed that there was only one. The Oxford University said in a statement:
“Studying snow leopard scat from wildlife trails and marking sites revealed three primary genetic clusters, differentiated by geographical location: the Northern group, Panthera uncia irbis, found in the Altai region, the Central group, Panthera uncia uncioides, found in the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, and the Western group, Panthera uncia uncia, found in the Tian Shan, Pamir, and trans-Himalaya regions.
“This is the first range-wide genetic analysis of wild snow leopard populations.”
It has been estimated that there are only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards in the wild, with 600-700 in zoos around the world. Exact numbers in the wild have not been determined because of the snow leopard’s shy nature.
Even though the snow leopard inhabits a vast area of around 1.6 million km² across 12 countries in Asia, it is still considered to be the world’s most elusive big cat. It primarily lives at high-altitudes, mountains between 9,800 and 17,000 feet in elevation.
This is an environment that is characterized by low oxygen levels, low productivity, temperature extremes, aridity, and harsh climactic conditions.
However, with its powerful build, it is able to scale steep slopes with ease. Its hind legs give the snow leopard the ability to leap six times the length of its own body. Its long tail not only provides balance and agility, it also wraps around the resting snow leopard, giving it protection from the cold.
Their range extends from Afghanistan to Kazakstan and Russia in the north, and to India and China in the east. However, they have already disappeared from certain parts of Mongolia, and China contains about 60 percent of snow leopard habitat.
Not a lot is known about the snow leopard. Dr. Jan E. Janecka, lead author of the study, explains that this study is important because:
“It provides the first glimpse of how snow leopard populations are structured and connected; in a nutshell, populations that are connected with other populations, are more stable and have a greater chance of persisting. Delineating subspecies provides two main benefits.
“The first is a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of the species. The second is that it enables more flexible conservation measures, so plans can be developed specific to the challenges faced within a particular region. Our study highlights the need for transboundary initiatives to protect this species, and other wildlife in Asia.”
Snow leopards prey upon the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the Himalayas, as well as the mountain ibex, which is found over most of their range. Even though these powerful predators can kill animals that are three times their weight, they will also eat smaller animals, such as marmots, hares, and game birds.
Snow leopards have been known to have a taste for domestic animals, which has led to big cats being killed by herders. This has only increased their dramatic decline in population; however, poaching driven by the illegal trade in pelts and in body parts used for traditional Chinese medicine have also taken their toll. Vanishing habitat and also the decline of the cats’ large mammal prey are also contributing factors to the decline in population.
- Mating season: Between January and mid-March.
- Gestation period: 3-3 1/2 months.
- Litter size: 2-3 cubs.
- Females give birth in rocky dens that are lined with their fur. The young follow their mother on hunts at three months, and remain with her through their first winter.
- Height: About 2 feet (.6 m) at shoulders.
- Length: 6-7.5 feet (1.8-2.3 m) (includes 40-inch (1 m) tail length).
- Weight: 77-120 lbs (35-55 kg).
- Female snow leopards are about 30 percent smaller than males.
- Lifespan: Their reclusive nature makes it hard to determine snow leopard lifespan in the wild. They have, however, been known to live for as long as 21 years in captivity.
- Snow leopards have light green or gray eyes, unusual for big cats, who usually have yellow or gold eyes.
- Unlike other big cats, snow leopards are unable to roar. Solitary in nature, they pair only during the breeding season.
Like this article? Subscribe to our weekly email for more!