Species Facts: Snow Leopard

Snow leopards aren’t leopards that live in snowy country.

Panthera uncia is actually a separate species and more closely related to the tiger.  Despite that, the resemblance between Uncia and leopards is astounding. See for yourself!

The first cat in this video is a leopard, the second a snow leopard.

Their worlds only overlap in the southern part of Uncia’s range, especially in the Himalayan ranges of Nepal and Bhutan. (McCarthy and others; Stein and others)

Who’s this?

The video above is the first time anyone has seen these two very similar cats sharing a territory. (Snow Leopard Trust).

Each one is a winner, instead of one driving the other into local extinction.

Leopards and snow leopards can share the mountain country up to around 17,000 feet, but snow leopards go even higher in the Himalayas. (Cat Specialist Group; McCarthy and others; Stein and others)

They own alpine and subalpine zones (Cat Specialist Group) from the Himalayas northward, across the Tibet plateau and the Central Asian high country, to mountainous southern Siberia. (McCarthy and others)

That’s twelve countries:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bhutan
  • China
  • India
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Mongolia
  • Nepal
  • Pakistan
  • Russia
  • Tajikistan
  • Uzbekistan

Uncia may also be in northern Myanmar, but that hasn’t been confirmed yet. (McCarthy and others)

During the winter, snow leopards follow their prey – mainly wild goats and sheep – down to the Gobi Desert, which still puts them two to three miles above sea level. (ISEC)

What does it look like?

Genetic testing proves that snow leopards belong with the big cats, but their appearance is more like a 60- to 100-pound house cat with an extremely long tail and huge front paws. (Heptner and Sludskii; McCarthy and others)

But no house cat has that smoky gray to yellowish fur, soft yet dense, and sprinkled with spots and rosettes that help the snow leopard blend into its rocky background. (Heptner and Sludskii; ISEC)

Snow leopards also have small, rounded ears that are set wide apart, the better to avoid being seen by prey in the mountains, where there is little cover. (ISEC)

The air is thin up in snow-leopard country. The cats have adapted to this by developing extra-large nasal cavities, well-developed chest muscles, and blood chemistry changes similar to those that help humans live at high altitudes. (Cat Specialist Group; Cho and others)

Their broad foot pads are covered with hair that provides insulation and also increases the paw’s surface area. (ISEC)

Snow leopards can therefore walk a little easier on snow and, with the help of their broad tail, they are incredibly agile on rocks.

The Coolness Factor:

Besides its adorable appearance, Uncia is the only cat that can do this:

Just for the record, a snow leopard covers from 20 to 50 feet in a single leap (ISEC), and that tail makes an excellent counterbalance/rudder.

Why is it on the IUCN Red List?

At the time of writing, there is a big disagreement among conservation groups over the precise extinction risk snow leopards face.

What makes assessments so difficult is that these cats avoid people, and they live in very difficult terrain for census taking. No one even knows what their historic range used to be. (Cat Specialist Group)

Whatever the finer points are in this debate, Uncia is still at risk of extinction.

The best interests of the snow leopard will ultimately come first in anyone whose heart this wild feline has touched.

Featured image: Two snow leopards playing, by strichpunkt at Pixabay. Public domain.


Cat Specialist Group. Snow leopard. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=100 Last accessed September 15, 2017.

Cho, Y. S.; Hu, L.; Hou, H.; Lee, H.; and others. 2013. The tiger genome and comparative analysis with lions and snow leopard genomes. Nature Communications. 4:2433.

Heptner, V. G., and Sludskii, A. A. 1972. Mammals of the Soviet Union, volume II, part 2: Carnivora (hyaenas and cats). Moscow: Vysshaya Shkola Publishers. English translation by Rao, P.M., 1992. General editor: Kothekar, V. S. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing.

International Society for Endangered Cats (ISEC). Snow leopard. https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/eurasia/snow-leopard/ Last accessed September 15, 2017.

McCarthy, T.; Mallon, D.; Jackson, R.; Zahler, P.; and McCarthy, K. 2017. Panthera uncia. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017:e.T22732A50664030.

Snow Leopard Trust: Facebook post February 13, 2017. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10155040344106913&id=77272446912 Last accessed September 15, 2017.

Stein, A. B.; Athreya, V.; Gemgross, P.; Balme, G.; and others. 2016. Panthera pardus. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016:e.T15954A102421779.Snow Leopard True statement: https://www.snowleopard.org/statement-iucn-red-list-status-change-snow-leopard/ Last accessed September 2017.

Last edited June 17, 2018.



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