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Snow leopards have the following adaptations for survival in cold, high-altitude mountain habitat:
- Large paws for traveling on top of snow.
- Short front legs and long back legs for leaping amazing distances to navigate rocky terrain. A snow leopard can leap 30 feet , or up to 6 times their body length from a standing position.
- Strong chest muscles for climbing steep terrain.
- Small ears help to keep heat in the body.
- A wide and short nasal cavity warms cold air before it enters the lungs.
- Rosette markings on the fur help snow leopards to blend in perfectly with their rocky habitat.
- Thick winter fur keeps them warm.
- The long tail aids in balance when leaping and also provides warmth for the face and body when wrapped around the cat at night or when resting.
Snow leopards are shy and elusive in their remote habitat, and they are known for their solitary nature. They are most active at dawn and dusk (called crepuscular), but may remain active during daytime hours if they are in an area with few to no humans present. If human settements are close, the leopards switch more to a nocturnal activity pattern to avoid contact.
Snow leopard home ranges can be hundreds of square miles, and they travel these large areas searching for food by themselves (except for brief periods during mating season or mothers with cubs). Despite being physically alone, snow leopards do communicate with each other through scent using scrapes, urine spraying, and feces as signals to other leopards. They often leave these "signs" along cliffs or ridges to indicate home range boundaries and also to tell other leopards who they are. This is especially important information for other leopards during winter mating season.
Sounds and vocalizations are used to communicate over short distances. These include purring, mewing, growling, moaning, and yowling. They may also make a sound called a chuff, which takes the place of a roar (they are not a roaring cat due the anatomy of their throats).
Snow leopards primarily hunt blue sheep (or bharal) and Asiatic ibex (a large wild goat). These prey species are powerful, often over 3 times the body weigh of a snow leopard. Once a leopard takes down one of these large prey animals, it will stay at the kill site to feed for 3 or 4 days. They will defend their kill from scavengers, but will spook away from it if disturbed by humans. In general, a leopard would try to hunt a large blue sheep or ibex every 8 to 10 days or as opportunities present themselves. Like all cat species, snow leopards are known to eat vegetation. Unlike other cats, snow leopards seem to eat large amounts of plant matter and scientists are unsure of why (vitamins, digestion aid, parasite elimination, etc.).
A snow leopard will take any opportunity to eat, given their harsh and unforgiving habitat. This sometimes means that livestock such as sheep or horses or yaks become prey for these cats. This may increase during winter months when the easiest food resources will be taken to conserve energy. The loss of livestock can be a financial blow to herders who rely on their livestock to feed their families and earn a living, so the Snow Leopard Trust has started incentive programs to reduce the instance of herders seeking revenge on leopards and killing them. Click here to learn about these innovative conservation programs.
Snow leopards mate between January and mid-March. A male and female mating pair will meet during this period, travel together and mate over a few days time, then go their separate ways to return to solitary life. Females are sexually mature and ready to have cubs around 2 to 3 years of age, males are ready to breed at 4 years. Gestation (fetal growth) is anywhere between 93 and 110 days, with a litter of cubs born in June or July. Litters can consist of up to three cubs, or just one or two. Scientists believe that female snow leopards retreat to birthing den sites just before they have their cubs, but these dens are so well hidden that an active site has yet to be found. Captive females in zoos are observed to line their birthing boxes with fur, so the assumption is that wild females likely behave in the same manner. The female is solely responsible for providing cubs with shelter and food, a challenge even in the best of conditions. Cubs are totally helpless at birth, with eyes closed until the end of their first week. They eat solid food at around 2 months, and begin practicing hunting with their mother at 3 months. They reach independence from their mother at around 22 months.
Population Status, Threats & Conservation
Snow leopards are an endangered species for the following reasons:
- Poaching (illegal hunting) of snow leopards for their beautiful fur, which is illegally purchased in areas of Asia and Europe for garments. Their bones and body parts are used in traditional Asian medicines. Poaching is often carried out by local people who live near snow leopard habitat in poverty. Poaching offers them a way to provide food and shelter for their families, at the expense of the leopards.
- Retribution (revenge) killings of leopards by herders who have lost livestock.
- Loss of habitat and prey as larger herding operations and more livestock encroach on the habitat of both leopards and their prey. In addition, hunting of prey species detracts from the limited supply for leopards.
- Mining can have an impact in areas where chemicals and explosives are used to extract minerals from the mountains. This causes leopards and their prey to relocate.
- An overall lack of resources for local people and governments, who find it difficult to abide by or enforce leopard protection laws due to poverty and lack of a work force to track poachers.
Scientists find it challenging to monitor leopard populations due to their elusive and remote lives, but technology is advancing in the use of remote sensing cameras and research efforts will continue. The Snow Leopard Trust is an organization that works to promote education, research, and work with local communities to conserve this species. Visit their site now to learn all about their efforts.
Snow Leopard Trust
Toriello, K. 2002. "Uncia uncia" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web