Until modern genetics arrived, experts weren’t sure where the world’s most beautiful cat** fits into the family Felidae.
- They’re almost as big as a leopard but have never been heard to roar — how could snow leopards therefore be considered one of the “roaring cats” (the original classification for lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards)?
- The snow leopard’s long legs and small, rounded head resemble those of the cheetah (a “purring cat” that’s also hard to classify), even though the two wild felines have very different lifestyles. Are they somehow related?
Unable to answer these questions, zoologists just gave snow leopards their own genus, Uncia, which is also the cat’s species name.
It’s a Latinized version of the old common name for snow leopards: “ounce.” That’s not a measure of weight in this case but an English term that developed out of once, the Old French word for the lynx.
So now we’ve brought in leopards, cheetahs, and lynxes — a very mixed-up situation for Uncia uncia. But that’s as far as the best minds on the planet could get, going merely by appearances.
Then DNA testing became a thing, and the boffins discovered that snow leopards are actually very closely related to tigers!
This was a surprise, but it definitely established that snow leopards count as big cats (and also that roaring isn’t a necessary qualification for membership in this ancient lineage).
Have you ever seen a snow leopard photograph or video that wasn’t amazing? top
The big cats (Panthera).
These are from the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 66 to 110 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: 24 inches. (Jackson et al.)
- Body length: 35 to 47 inches.
- Tail length: 32 to 39 inches. Yes, that’s an unusually long tail for any cat. These mountain acrobats use it for balance. Too, it makes a nice warm wrap-around when they’re lying down or sitting, especially during the winter.
- Coat: Plush fur (up to 5 inches long in winter) that’s spotted like a leopard or a jaguar, but with a whitish-gray to grayish-brown background. This coloration blends in perfectly with the rocky, snow-patched slopes snow leopards call home. These cats also have thick cushions of fur in between their paw pads, perhaps for insulation on sun-baked or icy rocks, as well as for “snowshoeing” like a lynx.
- Vocals: Snow leopards lack the right vocal apparatus to produce either a roar or a cheetah-like purr. You’ll still hear them yowl, though, especially during mating season. They also chuff.
- Average litter size: 1-5 (typically 2, per Ewer).
- Average life span: 10 to 20 years.
Features unique to this cat:
- Snow leopards have the longest, densest fur of any big cat. (Heptner and Sludskii)
- The physical resemblance (under all that puffy fur) to cheetahs might be a case of convergent evolution — both cats, for instance, have skull designs that increase air intake (Turner and Antón), the cheetah to fuel its speed bursts and the snow leopard to breathe in such thin air. But only Uncia has genetic adaptations like those found in people living at high altitudes (namely, per Wang et al., genes that increase the number of red blood cells, as well as the amount of oxgyen that blood can carry).
- It’s hard to think of another cat that stalks its prey from above and then careens down a steep (more than 20-degree) cliff, seemingly without footholds, onto the hapless victim.
Where found in the wild:
The high mountain country of Central Asia, including:
- Russia’s Altai mountains
- The Tian Shan and Kun Lun ranges
- Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains
- The Hindu Kush
- Karakorum Mountains bordering INdia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China
- The Himalayas
Closest cat-family relatives:
Taxonomists are still debating interrelationships among the other big cats (lions, leopards, and jaguars) and how they are related to snow leopards and tigers.
In terms of the cat family tree, the big cat lineage is oldest, going back roughly 11 million (Johnson et al.) to 16 million (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) years.
But it also has the most “ghosts” — descendants that had to exist, in order for there to be big cats today, but that didn’t leave fossils. The oldest widely accepted big-cat fossils only go back some 4 million years. (Werdelin et al.)
How snow leopards hunt and live:
You need to see this, not only for the drama and acrobatics but also to watch this cat go from “adorable playmate” to “terrifying killer” in just a few seconds:
Never give up!
Blue sheep and Siberian ibexes are Uncia’s favorite menu choices — one cat can take 20 to 30 of them each year. (Macdonald et al., 2010)
While snow leopards aren’t quite as obsessive about ibexes and sheep as the Canada lynx is with rabbits, their ranges do coincide with their prey’s.
Carnivore and herbivore both migrate up and down the mountain sides according to season, heading upslope in summertime (where the sheep find grass and the snow leopards use shrubs and rocks for cover) and then moving back down below timber line during the winter.
In general, look for wild snow leopards at elevations between 7,000 and 16,000 feet, though they’ve been sighted as high as 18,000 feet in the Himalayas and as low as 2,000 feet in Russian and Mongolian hills.
Despite the rugged terrain, these big cats set up typical feline territories, with the males basing theirs on the presence of females and the she-cats basing theirs on food resources.
And just like other kitties, snow leopards patrol these territories, moving along linear features like ridges, cliff edges, and canyons, pausing now and then to log or rock onto the local social media “page.”
Urine sprays and skin-gland rubbing may be time-sharing notes rather than “No Trespassing!” signs or a sexy come-on. There isn’t much available real estate up there, and multiple snow leopards frequently use the same core area at different times. (Jackson et al.)
Both snow leopards and tigers are solitary animals, but apparently there’s some built-in flexibility.
Each species occasionally has been observed travelling or feeding in groups. Alhough such behavior isn’t routine, it does make you wonder why they don’t form prides.
The reason might be habitat.
Some zoologists suggest that lions come together because they live on flat, open terrain. In such a setting, there’s very little cover for a large stalk-and-ambush predator and there are LOTS of scavengers.
Hunting as a group is basically the only way to catch prey and then eat it despite all the jackals, hyenas, and other hangers-on that gather within minutes of a kill.
If our big cats lived in those lands, perhaps they would form a cuddle of snow leopards or a magnificence of tigers to compete with the lions’ pride.
How snow leopards reproduce:
Snow leopards make their dens in caves or rocky crevices — wherever they can’t be seen during the day.
Per the Cat Specialist Group and Ewer, most cubs are born in spring and early summer after a pregnancy that lasts about a hundred days.
They weigh just a couple of ounces at birth. The cubs’ eyes open after about 8 days and they’re ready to start solid food when 1 month old.
Like all cats, snow leopard cubs have blue eyes at first. These eventually take on adult eye color — gray or green — as the weeks pass.
Weaning is completed by 2 to 2-1/2 months of age, but the youngsters still have much to learn. They won’t be fully prepared to make their own way in life until they’re 18 months to 2 years old.
Interactions with people:
Snow leopards are fairly easy-going, for big cats, and some of them have been tamed. However, conservationists are concerned about conflict.
First is human-human conflict. Wars and lesser-scale troubles have happened with depressing regularity in snow leopard country during the last half-century or so.
As well, about a third of the cat’s range includes political hot spots and disputed borders. This makes it very difficult to set up international protocols and other agreements to protect snow leopards, even when bullets and missiles aren’t flying around.
Secondly, there is human-snow leopard conflict. It arises from snow leopards preying on livestock and people competing for wild prey by grazing livestock and hunting wild sheep and ibexes for food and as trophies.
Very few people live year-round in the high country, but those that do use that landscape intensively for agriculture and livestock. This puts pressure on wild prey animals, and as their numbers decline, the snow leopards turn to livestock.
Predation losses can be heavy in some places — $50 to $300 annually, for pastoralists whose per capita income ranges between $250 and $400, per Jackson et al.
Conservationists try to prevent the resulting retaliation by compensating the livestock owners, encouraging better methods to protect livestock, and pointing out the very real economic benefits to be gained through having snow leopards in the neighborhood.
Efforts like this are also working:
Given their extreme environment, it’s not surprising to hear that snow leopards haven ‘t left much of a record in the rocky archives.
Some late Pleistocene fossils have been found in Altai mountain caves. Other relicts that can be dated to 1.2 to 1.4 million years are known from northern Pakistan. (Turner and Antón)
However, Werdelin et al. note that these are all teeth and so are very difficult to convincingly attribute to Uncia.
Yes, as Vulnerable. Snow leopards were downlisted from Endangered in 2015 when it was decided that there were more than 2,500 cats in the wild, but there may be fewer than 10,000 of them left.
That does put Uncia at risk of extinction.
Conservation biologists are still concerned that, for a variety of reasons, overall snow leopard numbers will fall significantly over the next two decades. (See the Cat Specialist Group and McCarthy et al. for details.)
Featured image: Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Cat Specialist Group http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=100 Last accessed May 17, 2019.
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. 4:24-33.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Gradstein, F. M.; Ogg, J. G.; and Hilgen, F. G. 2012. On the geologic time scale. Newsletters on Stratigraphy. 45(2):171-188.
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. https://archive.org/details/mammalsofsov221992gept
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Wikipedia. 2019. Snow leopard. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_leopard Last accessed May 17, 2019.