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

American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus)

Doesn’t the name of this bird sound like America claimed ownership of a constellation and renamed it after themselves? I’m guessing it would be the Big Dipper, because I doubt America would settle for ownership of the mere Little Dipper. Still, this animal isn’t a group of stars, it’s a cute little birdie.

American dippers are found in the US, but also in Canada and Mexico and Central America. They reside in the western part of the continent, and are usually found in mountains. They are fiercely attached to water, and particularly fond of swift, cold and rocky streams. They will sometimes migrate to lower elevations in winter, when their water source freezes.

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A young American dipper. Image credit: GregTheBusker via Wikipedia

These birds are fairly moderate in size, reaching around 17 cm in length and weights of 46 g. They have grey bodies and brown heads, which are fringed with white during the winter. American dippers have long legs, which help them forage in streams.

The diet of American dippers consists of things you can find in mountain streams, such as small crayfish, insect larvae, tadpoles and small fish. American dippers have a few handy adaptations that allow them to hunt while diving or walking along the bottom of their streams. They possess an extra eyelid that lets them see underwater, and special scales around their nostrils that keep them closed while the beak is submerged. American dippers also produce much more oil than normal birds, to help waterproof their feathers and reduce heat loss while foraging.

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An American dipper standing on a rock in a stream, a very typical pose. They bob up and down while foraging, which is how they get their common name. Image source

A male dipper woos a female by standing in front of her, wings spread and head stretched upwards. He then walks back and forth in front of the female, singing. If he does it well, the female will join in, and the two finish the song facing one another, their breasts touching.

Nests are built near water, on rocky ledges or river banks. Females lay 2-4 eggs, which will hatch in less than three weeks. Both parents help feed and take care of the young, until they are around a month old. At that time the chicks fledge and go out into the big wide world on their own.

Currently American dippers are listed as a species of least concern, which is great news. It is, however, affected by water pollution, and will disappear from polluted areas. Because of this, American dippers are used as an indicator species for water quality, so these birds are not only really neat, they are useful too!

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

Tailed frog (genus Ascaphus)

Frogs don’t usually strike me as creatures that have tails, unless of course you’re talking about tadpoles. But there are two species of frogs that do have tail-like appendages. These are the aptly named tailed frogs. These unique frogs are quite amazing animals, as you will soon see.

Tailed frogs are found in the western United States as well as in British Columbia. They inhabit areas that contain cold, clear streams. These are usually in mountainous regions, though the frogs try and avoid areas that are too flat or too steep. Tailed frogs rely on streams to live, and require specific characteristics of the streams. The waters must not be too warm, even in the summer, and the frogs prefer areas that are forested. The trees help keep temperatures in the water consistent as well as preventing sedimentation in the stream.

A great picture of a male tailed frog, showing the extended cloaca.  Image source: http://www.fieldherpforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=17403

A great picture of a male tailed frog, showing the extended cloaca.
Image source: http://www.fieldherpforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=17403

To adapt to fast flowing stream environments tailed frogs have a number of interesting morphological traits. They have small lungs in comparison to other frogs, which helps to reduce the frogs’ natural buoyancy. Their feet are equipped with hardened toes that help the frogs grip the rocky steam bottoms. Tailed frogs also lack ear drums, as the constant sound of flowing water interferes with any attempt at acoustic communication.

Of course, one of the most obvious adaptations to living in fast flowing water are the frogs’ “tails”, which are actually only present in males. These tails are used for internal fertilization, a trait that is extremely rare among frogs and toads. The tails are actually extensions of the males’ cloacae, and are inserted into the female during reproduction. This prevents the males’ semen from being washed away by the turbulent water as it would be if the frogs used external fertilization.

Mating season occurs in the fall, usually between September and October. However, female tailed frogs store sperm internally and do not deposit eggs until the summer. They attach their eggs to the base of a rock where the eggs stay until they hatch, which usually takes about six weeks. The tadpoles of tailed frogs also have adaptations for living in streams; these include flattened bodies, and sucker-like mouths that can attach to boulders or rocks. Development into adult frogs can take anywhere from 1 to 4 years, and sexual maturity may not be reached until eight years of age.

A tadpole flipped upsidedown so the sucker mouth is visible. I think it's pretty creepy looking.  Image source: Wikipedia

A tadpole flipped upsidedown so the sucker mouth is visible. I think it’s pretty creepy looking.
Image source: Wikipedia

Turbulent streams are not very welcoming habitats, but the tailed frog seems to have figured out how to thrive in them. Though the frogs leave their streams at night to forage for food, they rarely stray far from their home waters, and their survival is dependent on such habitats. Luckily for us, such hostile environments often lead to interesting adaptations and the tailed frog is no exception.

Cover image source: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/willapa/wildlife_and_habitat/coastal_tailed_frog.html