Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

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.

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A map of the range of the snow leopard. Image source: Wikipedia

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.

Snow_Leopard_in_Ladakh(_Photo_by_Tashi_Lonchay)

Snow leopards blend into their habitats extremely well. Image credit: Tashi Lonchay via Wikipedia

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.

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Look how cute these little guys are!!!! Image credit: Dingopup via Wikipedia

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.

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My drawing of a snow leopard, done in pencil crayon and a brush and ink.  

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 source

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

The other day someone asked if I had written about the cheetah on this blog. I was sure I had, but thorough searches of my blog revealed that I had not, in fact, ever blogged about cheetahs. This is a terrible crime, and so I will remedy it immediately.

The original range of cheetahs included almost all of Africa, the Middle East, and India. Today this area is considerably reduced, with large cheetah populations occurring only in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia. The only remaining asiatic population exists in Iran, and only has about 50 reproducing cheetahs. Cheetahs favour open habitats, such as savannah or desert.

Most of you are familiar with what cheetahs look like: big, slender cats with fun spots covering yellow fur. They reach lengths of 112 to 150 cm, not including the tail. They weigh between 21 to 72 kg, with males being larger than females.

Cheetah

They are such gorgeous animals. Image credit: William Warby via Wikipedia

Every bit of the cheetah is designed for speed. They are the fastest land animals in the world, and can sprint at speeds of 80 to 112 km/h for short periods of time. The black tear marks under cheetahs’ eyes keep sunlight out of their eyes  (much like the marks football players wear), something that’s very important when they’re running at high speeds. They have enlarged nostrils, which allows cheetahs to intake more oxygen into their big hearts and lungs, providing enough energy for sprinting.

Cheetahs also cannot fully retract their claws, an adaptation that allows them to grip the ground while running. They have a flexible spine that allows them to stretch their legs out, coving up to 7m per stride. While their intense speed is useful, cheetahs also rely on their acceleration and agility to catch prey. Their powerful muscles can get a cheetah from 0 to 75 km/h in two seconds. Their long tails act as rudders, allowing cheetahs to make amazing turns at high speed.

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A fantastic picture of a cheetah mid-stride. Image source: http://theruniverse.com/2012/07/02/running-tips-from-cheetahs/

Despite their wealth of adaptations that let cheetahs run at ludicrous speeds, accelerate to those speeds almost instantly, and turn on a dime while running, a large portion of cheetah hunts are unsuccessful. Cheetahs only catch their prey 40-50% of the time, and even once they’ve caught their prey, they still can’t rest. Cheetahs are outcompeted by almost all other predators in their range, and will readily give up their hard-earned meal if challenged by even a single hyena. It’s estimated that 10-15% of cheetah kills are lost to kleptoparasitism.

Cheetahs give birth to up to six cubs, which are freaking adorable. The cubs stay in a den until they are about eight weeks of age. After this they follow their mother around on hunts, though she still provides them with milk. They are weaned at six months of age, but stay with their mother until they are 15 to 17 months old. The biggest cause of cheetah cub mortality is predation from other animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. In areas with high densities of these animals, cheetah cub mortality can be staggeringly high.

Cheetahs have always been one of my favourite species of big cat. Something about the grace with which they move captivates me. One day I would love to see one of them in the wild. I’ll add that to my bucket list.