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.

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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

Yak (Bos mutus)

Two weekends ago I was working at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, and every morning I walked to our booth I went past the cow ring where there were always lots of adorable cows being shown. So when I had to find a mammal to write about for today, cows immediately came to mind. Of course, this blog is called Our Wild World, so I had to choose a wild relative of the cow. And what bovine is more silly and adorable than the yak?

There are domesticated yaks, but I will mainly be talking about the wild population in this post. Wild yaks live in a very restricted area, on the Tibetan Plateau. This of course includes the Tibet region and parts of China proper. Yaks used to be found in Nepal and Bhutan, but are now extinct in those countries. Wild yaks like cold areas, but need enough vegetation to sustain themselves. They are most commonly found at 3,000 to 5,500 meters, in treeless areas where there are grasses and sedges.

Yaks are large animals, and are the second largest bovid on the planet. They grow to be 1.6 to 2.2 meters at the shoulder, and can weigh as much as 1,000 kg. Female yaks are much smaller than males, and domesticated yaks are smaller than wild ones, with domesticated males only reaching weights of 580 kg. Both sexes have horns, though the horns of males are larger and can reach lengths of almost a meter. Yak fur is long and shaggy, and is usually dark brown or black.

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Look how handsome he is. Image source

Due to the extremely high altitudes yaks inhabit, these animals have a number of special adaptations. They have a very thick undercoat that is kept matted by a sticky substance secreted in their sweat; this helps with insulation. They also have a very thick layer of fat under their skin, to help protect against the cold.

Yaks have larger hearts and lungs than cattle that live at lower elevations, and higher concentrations of haemoglobin in their blood than other cattle. This allows yaks to breathe and function at the high altitudes in which they live. Yaks also have larger rumens than domestic cattle, which helps extract the most possible nutrition out of yaks’ low quality diet. While domestic cows have to eat 3% of their body weight daily, yaks only need to eat 1% for maintenance. Because of their extensive adaptations to the climate they live in, yaks do not do well at lower elevations, or in warm weather. They can suffer from heat exhaustion above temperatures of 15 degrees celsius.

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A herd of wild yaks mixed with domesticated ones. Image source

Yaks are herd animals, though for most of the year males and females live separately. Females live in large herds of up to 200 animals, while males form much smaller bachelor herds of around six animals. Mating season occurs between July and September. At this time the males rut, fighting one another for dominance. Displays during this time include bellowing, scraping their horns along the ground, as well as charging at one another.

Calves are born from May to June after a gestation of between 257 and 270 days. Calves can walk almost immediately after birth, and are weaned at a year of age. Yaks generally give birth every other year, and reach sexual maturity around three or four years of age.

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A drawing I did of a yak in charcoal – I haven’t sprayed it yet so I had to take a pretty poor picture with my phone instead of scanning it. 

Though wild yaks are not yet endangered, they are a vulnerable species and are threatened by a number of human activities. Hunting is one of the biggest problems facing wild yak, as people hunt them for food. Domestic yaks can also be a problem, because of transmission of diseases and competition for grazing. Hopefully we can protect these silly but majestic animals and keep them around in the wild for a long time to come!

Bharal (Pseudois nayaur)

I have great respect for any animal that lives in mountains. Partly this is because I am afraid of heights, and the thought of animals that manage to traverse the steepest of slopes with little trouble amazes me. Also, when I think of mountains, I think of cold, barren peaks, places where animals would have difficulty surviving. There are, however, a fair number of animals that specialize in mountain-living, and today’s animal, the bharal, is one.

Bharals are a species of sheep who don’t just live in any old mountains; they choose to live in the most forbidding of mountain ranges, the Himalayas. They are mostly found on the Tibetan plateau, and range into India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Bharals can withstand a wide variety of weather extremes, from intense heat to bitter cold and vicious winds. They prefer cliffy areas and generally avoid forests.

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You can see how these guys blend into the rocks around them. Image credit: reurinkjan via Wikipedia

Bharals get to be a moderate size, reaching maximum lengths of 165 cm, and heights of 91 cm. They have blue-grey fur, which helps them blend in with the mountain rocks. The legs and belly are white, separated from the upper grey fur by a dark stripe. Both sexes have horns, though the males’ are much longer and more curved.

Bharals spend most of their day grazing, finding the rugged grasses that make up most of their diet. When grasses are less available, the sheep will supplement their meals with shrubs and herbs. Bharals are most vulnerable to predators while they are grazing. Their primary defence is immobility; due to their colouring they blend into the surrounding rocks and are exceptionally difficult to find while frozen. If this strategy does not work, the bharals will flee onto nearby cliffs, and then freeze again.

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A baby bharal! So cute!! Image credit: Ksuryawanshi via Wikipedia

Mating season in bharals usually occurs between November and February, depending on elevation. Gestation lasts four to five months, with one or two offspring being born in late spring. Both sexes reach sexual maturity at about two years, but males are not fully grown until they are five to seven years of age.

Mountains, especially the Himalayas, may be treacherous, difficult habitats, but bharals make it work. In fact, they’re doing quite well, as the population is not currently threatened. So I guess living in remote areas has its benefits.

Cover image source: John Hill via Wikipedia

Markhor (Capra falconeri)

Markhor have some of the neatest looking horns around. I’ve seen them up close and personal, when I was feeding a small herd of them once. They were friendly enough, but even friendly animals can be dangerous if they’re excited about getting food and have giant spiralled horns on their heads. Still, they didn’t actually hurt me so I’ve always had a bit of a fondness for markhor.

Markhor are a species of goat that are found in Asia, in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They are Pakistan’s national animal. Markhor are well suited to mountainous areas, and so are primarily found in the Himalayas. They prefer areas with some tree cover, mainly forests with oak, pine and juniper trees.

Markhor can be fairy big, with males reaching 110 kg and 180 cm. Females aren’t nearly as impressive, with maximum weights of only 50kg. Their fur colour ranges from tan to black, and is fairy short and light for an animal that lives in the cold of the mountains. Like dwarves, both male and female markhor have beards, but males have much larger ones. Both sexes also have the markhor’s characteristic corkscrew horns, which can get to 160 cm in length in males.

A markhor looking pensive in the mountains.  Image credit: Dave Pape via http://a-z-animals.com/animals/markhor/pictures/4163/

A male markhor looking pensive in the mountains.
Image credit: Dave Pape via http://a-z-animals.com/animals/markhor/pictures/4163/

Male markhor may be too intimidating for females to handle year-round, because females herd together while males live solitary lives. The females only let males join them during the rut, when males compete for the right to mate with a herd. Rutting occurs in the fall, so that young can be born in the spring months. Mothers give birth to one or two kids, who stay with her until the next breeding season.

Like most ungulates, markhor are herbivorous, feeding on grasses in the spring and summer and leaves and branches during the winter. Markhor tend to occupy higher elevations during the summer, when the weather is nicer, moving to lower areas when things get really cold and nasty. Predators of markhor include lynx, snow leopards, wolves and bears. To avoid these, markhor stay on high alert, using their excellent sight and smell to detect potential threats. When they are targeted, the goats are very agile and quick to escape threats.

A female with her little ones.  Photo source: Wikipedia

A female with her little ones.
Photo source: Wikipedia

One threat that markhor have much more trouble defending against is human hunting. They are hunted for their meat and fur, and especially for those fancy horns of theirs. In some areas Markhor are protected by law, and in others simply by the inaccessible terrain they inhabit. Still, they have become endangered, though recent conservation efforts have helped increase population size. Let’s hope that trend continues!

Cover image credit: Peter Hopper via http://usfws.tumblr.com/post/79262124992/meet-the-species-straight-horned-markhor