Guest Video: On Snow Leopard Mountain

This BBC Unplugged video is beautiful. I’ve followed it with the chapter on snow leopards from my new book: Meet the Cat Family! The International Lineages..


It’s a spotted cat living at high altitudes — of course its called a “snow leopard” (though molecular studies suggest it has a closer evolutionary connection to tigers than to true leopards).

Up through the end of the 20th century and beyond, some experts, like Heptner and Sludskii, also called it an “ounce.”

That’s not just a measure of weight. It comes from the Old French word once that used to be a common name for several spotted wild felines.

You hardly ever see snow leopards called “ounce” any more, but their scientific name preserves this term in Latin: Panthera uncia.



Outstanding Features:

  1. The longest, densest fur of any big cat — up to 5 inches long in wintertime, with some 4,000 guard hairs per square centimeter. (Cat Specialist Group; Kitchener et al., 2010; Heptner and Sludskii)
  2. That fur hides the fact that snow leopards are built rather like cheetahs, with long legs and tail, as well as a very rounded skull. It’s all about lifestyle. Cheetahs need speed and balance on the plains. Snow leopards use their long legs and tail during intense chases (like this one) over almost vertical terrain. Both cheetah and snow leopard have evolved a rounded skull that widens air passages for them to catch their breath more quickly and to cool down faster after the hunt (in addition, snow leopards need to breathe more often because they live at high altitude, where the air is thinner).
  3. The only cat known to have genetic adaptations similar to those found in people who live at high altitude (namely, per Wang et al., unique amino acid changes related to factors that increase the number of red blood cells as well as the amount of oxygen-carrying hemoglobin in the blood).


These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.

Eric Kilby, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • 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. A snow leopard’s tail is as thick as a human arm. Besides balancing the cat as it moves, this tail probably also makes a nice warm wrap-around during rest.
  • Coat: The background color of this very shaggy fur is off white to pale gray. It is covered with rosettes; in addition, there are black spots over the head, neck, and legs. Snow leopards have individualized marking patterns. Two dark lines also typically extend from the neck to the tail. The overall coloration and patterns make snow leopards almost impossible to see against a rocky or snow-covered background. (Cat Specialist Group; Heptner and Sludskii; Jackson et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist; Turner and Antón)
  • Vocals: Snow leopards lack the right vocal fold qualities to either roar or purr. This doesn't stop them from making other common feline sounds. They also produce a loud yowl during mating season that can be heard above the noise of a fast-moving mountain river and over long distances. And they chuff, as this video shows. (Cat Specialist Group; Christiansen; Kitchener et al., 2010; Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Average litter size: 1-5; typically 2, per Ewer.

Where found in the wild:

BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Most snow leopards live in China. They’re also found in:

  • Russia’s Altai Mountains. Here, at the northern limit of their range, the cats generally stay below 10,000 feet, sometimes as low as 1600 feet.
  • The Tian Shan and Kun Lun ranges
  • Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains
  • The Hindu Kush
  • The Karakorum Mountains bordering India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China
    The Himalayas


  • Range of environments: Snow leopards have been observed as high as 18,000 feet in the Himalayas, but the Cat Specialist Group notes that they are most often seen between about 9800 to 16,400 feet. These mountain specialists move above and below timberline seasonally with their prey; the lowest reported sighting of a snow leopard is a little under 1,000 feet in the Altai Mountains. (McCarthy et al.)

    Eric Kilby, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Prey base: Mainly medium-sized hoofed animals, though snow leopards are opportunistic and take marmots and other small prey that they come across. Blue sheep and Siberian ibexes are at the top of the menu — one snow leopard can take 20 to 30 each year. (Macdonald et al., 2010) When wild prey isn’t available, snow leopards go after domestic livestock, which can be a heavy blow — $50 to $300 annually, in some places — for pastoralists who are only making between $250 and $400 per year. (Jackson et al.)
  • Example of guild: On the Taxkorgan Nature Reserve, in Central Asia’s Pamir mountain range, snow leopards, gray wolves, and the red fox are the main land-based predators. (Wang et al.)

Red-list status:

Vulnerable. See the Cat Specialist Group snow leopard page and the IUCN assessment for details.

Featured image: Eric Kilby, CC BY-ND 2.0


Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Snow leopard. 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.

Christiansen, P. 2008. Phylogeny of the great cats (Felidae: Pantherinae), and the influence of fossil taxa and missing characters. Cladistics, 24(6): 977-992.

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., 1992. General editor: Kothekar, V. S. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing.

Jackson, R. M.; Mishra, C.; McCarthy, T. M.; and Ale, S. B. 2010. Snow leopards: conflict and conservation, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 417-430. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: A genetic assessment. Science, 311:73-77.

Kitchener, A. C.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group.

Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010. Dramatis personae: An introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology, 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American, 297 (1): 68-75.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from

Tseng, Z. J.; Wang, X.; Slater, G. J.; Takeuchi, G. T.; and others. 2014. Himalayan fossils of the oldest known pantherine establish ancient origin of big cats. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1774): 20132686.

Turner, A., and Antón, M. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wang, J.; Laguardia, A.; Damerell, P. J.; Riordan, P.; and Shi, K. (2014). Dietary overlap of snow leopard and other carnivores in the Pamirs of Northwestern China. Chinese Science Bulletin, 59(25): 3162-3168.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. 2019. Snow leopard. Last accessed May 17, 2019.

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