The snow leopard (Panthera uncia syn. Uncia uncia) is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. It is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because as of 2003, the size of the global population was estimated at 4,080–6,590 adults, of which fewer than 2,500 individuals may reproduce in the wild.
Snow leopards inhabit alpine and subalpine zones at elevations from 3,000 to 4,500 m (9,800 to 14,800 ft). In the northern range countries, they also occur at lower elevations.
Taxonomically, the snow leopard was classified as Uncia uncia since the early 1930s. Based on genotyping studies, the cat has been considered a member of the genus Panthera since 2008. Two subspecies have been attributed, but genetic differences between the two have not been settled.
The snow leopard is the National Heritage Animal of Pakistan.
Snow leopards are slightly smaller than the other big cats but, like them, exhibit a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 55 kg (60 and 121 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (165 lb) and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb). They have a relatively short body, measuring in length from the head to the base of the tail 75 to 130 cm (30 to 50 in). However, the tail is quite long, at 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 in), with only the domestic-cat-sized marbled cat being relatively longer-tailed. They are stocky and short-legged big cats, standing about 60 cm (24 in) at the shoulder.
Snow leopards have long, thick fur, and their base colour varies from smoky grey to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their bodies, with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tails. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or grey in colour.
Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold, mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimise heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimise heat loss. Snow leopards’ tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due to storage of fat and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.
The snow leopard has a short muzzle and domed forehead, containing unusually large nasal cavities that help the animal breathe the thin, cold air of their mountainous environment.
The snow leopard cannot roar, despite possessing partial ossification of the hyoid bone. This partial ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but new studies show the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard. Snow leopard vocalisations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls, and wailing.
Snow leopards were only reclassified as a member of the Panthera genus (big cats) following a genetic study by Mr Brian Davis, Dr Gang Li and Professor William Murphy in 2009. This study showed that snow leopards actually evolved alongside tigers and not leopards as previously thought.
Naming and etymology
Both the latinized genus name, Uncia, and the occasional English name ounce are derived from the Old French once, originally used for the European lynx. Once itself is believed to have arisen by back-formation from an earlier variant of lynx, lonce – the “l” of lonce was construed as an abbreviated la (‘the’), leaving once to be perceived as the animal’s name. This, like the English version ounce, came to be used for other lynx-sized cats, and eventually for the snow leopard.
The snow leopard is also known in its native lands as “wāwrīn pṛāng” (Pashto: واورين پړانګ), “shan” (Ladakhi), “irves” (Mongolian: ирвэс), “bars” or “barys” (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), “ilbirs” (Kyrgyz: Илбирс), “barfānī chītā” (Hindi, Urdu: برفانی چیتا) and “him tendua” (Sanskrit, Hindi: हिम तेन्दुआ).
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of the word panthera is unknown. A folk etymology derives the word from the Greek πάν pan (“all”) and thēr (beast of prey) because they can hunt and kill almost anything. It was proposed to have come ultimately into Greek from a Sanskrit word meaning “the yellowish animal” or “whitish-yellow”. The Greek word πάνθηρ, pánthēr, referred to all spotted felines generically.
Distribution and habitat
The snow leopard is distributed from the west of Lake Baikal through southern Siberia, in the Kunlun Mountains, in the Russian Altai mountains, Sayan and Tannu-Ola Mountains, in the Tian Shan, across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan, Karakoram in northern Pakistan, in the Pamir Mountains, and in the high altitudes of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and the Tibetan Plateau. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet, it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
Potential snow leopard habitat in the Indian Himalayas is estimated at less than 90,000 km2 (35,000 sq mi) in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, of which about 34,000 km2 (13,000 sq mi) is considered good habitat, and 14.4% is protected. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Indian snow leopard population was estimated at roughly 200–600 individuals living across about 25 protected areas.
In summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at altitudes from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 19,700 ft). In winter, they come down into the forests to altitudes around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). Snow leopards prefer rocky, broken terrain, and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 cm (33 in) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.
Taxonomy and evolution
The snow leopard was first described by Schreber in 1775 on the basis of an illustration. Schreber named the cat Felis uncia and assumed that it ranges in Barbary, Persia, East India, and China.
In 1854, Gray proposed the genus Uncia, to which he subordinated the snow leopard under the name Uncia irbis. Pocock corroborated this classification, but attributed the scientific name Uncia uncia. He also described morphological differences between snow leopards and the then-accepted members of Panthera.
Based on genotyping studies, the snow leopard has been considered a member of the genus Panthera since 2008. Despite the common name given to the snow leopards, the tiger is considered its sister species, with the leopard being a more distant relative.
The snow leopard subspecies U. u. baikalensis-romanii was proposed for a population living in the southern Transbaikal region, which requires further evaluation. Authors of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognize two subspecies, namely U. u. uncia occurring in Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides living in western China and the Himalayas.
Ecology and behavior
The snow leopard is solitary, except for females with cubs. They rear them in dens in the mountains for extended periods.
An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, a home range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) to 40 km2 (15 sq mi) and up to five to 10 animals are found here per 100 km2 (39 sq mi); in habitats with sparse prey, though, an area of 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi) supports only five of these cats.
Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territories and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock.
Snow leopards are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.