I have always loved cats, and have been particularly fascinated by big cats. It’s hard to pick which of the big cats is my favourite — one day it will be cheetahs, another jaguars, and so on. I think I should stop trying to pick a favourite and just admit that I love them all. That certainly goes for today’s animal, the beautiful and reclusive snow leopard.
A note before I begin: the term ‘big cat’ is used a lot, and means different things. It is often used to refer to the cat species that can roar, which are tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards (which, along with the snow leopard, make up the genus Panthera). Some people include other species in the definition, such as snow leopards, pumas, clouded leopards, and cheetahs. That’s how I use the term, so now you won’t be confused.
Snow leopards don’t usually come into contact with people, partly because they live in one of the most forbidding habitats on Earth. They are found in Central Asia, in high altitude mountain ranges. This of course includes the Himalayas, but also extends into Bhutan, Nepal, and Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Mongolia. They prefer areas with steep and rocky terrain. Snow leopards are usually found between altitudes of 3,000 and 4,500 meters, but can move to lower altitudes to follow their prey during the winter.
Snow leopards are certainly big, but they are not as quite as large as the other Panthera cats. They range in size from 75 to 150 cm in length, and weigh between 27 and 55 kg. Snow leopards have grey or creamy-yellow coats, that are covered in black spots and rosettes. They have beautiful blue-green or aqua eyes.
Mountains are cold, especially really, really high ones. So snow leopards have find a way to stay warm. Snow leopards have stocky bodies, thick fur, and small, rounded ears, all of which help prevent heat loss (ears are an excellent way to lose heat, which is why desert animals have such big ones). Their tails are used to store fat, and have extra-thick fur on them. When the cats get cold, they can wrap their tails around themselves like a blanket and stay warm.
Cold isn’t the only treacherous aspect of alpine habitats. The mountains that snow leopards live in are steep, rocky, and often covered in deep snow. The air is cold and thin and difficult to breathe. Snow leopards have a number of ways of meeting these challenges. Their tails are long, reaching 80 to 100 cm in length, which is the longest relative to body size of any cat except the marbled cat and the domestic cat. These super long tails help the leopards balance on the rocky slopes. They also have wide paws, which help them walk on snow. Their back legs are long, which helps them jump and move with agility across rough terrain. Snow leopards posses large nasal cavities, to help them breathe in mountain air.
Snow leopards are pretty much hermits, living in the mountains and avoiding contact with others. They are solitary and secretive animals, coming together only to mate. This occurs in winter, from January to March. Female snow leopards announce their readiness to mate by yowling loudly to the mountains. If a male shows up, females further entice him by walking in front of him with their tails raised. If all goes well, mating ensues.
After a gestation of 90 to 100 days, female snow leopards give birth to one to five cubs (usually two or three) in April and June. The cubs are born in a cave or crevice, with shed fur from their mom lining the den. The cubs are able to walk at five weeks of age, and are weaned at ten weeks. They stay with their mothers long after this, however, and are entirely dependent on her for food, protection, and learning for the first year of their lives.
Unfortunately snow leopards are quite rare, and are currently listed as endangered. Thanks to habitat loss, prey loss, and poaching, snow leopards numbers have been in decline. Another threat to snow leopards is climate change, which over time will increase the temperature in snow leopard habitats, meaning the tree line will move up, and increase competition for snow leopards. We have a lot of trouble keeping track of snow leopard numbers, however. They are hard to count, since most of the time we can’t even find them in the mountains, as they blend in really well, are well-known for being shy. There are many conservation efforts in place to protect snow leopards, so with luck we will be able to keep these amazing cats from going extinct.
Cover image by Snow Leopard Conservancy/Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons