The snow leopard (Uncia uncia) is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change and its exact taxonomic position will not be resolved until further studies are conducted.
Snow leopards live between 3,000 and 5,500 metres (9,800 and 18,000 ft) above sea level in the rocky mountain ranges of Central Asia. However, their secretive nature means that their exact numbers are unknown, although it has been estimated that between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild and between 600 and 700 in zoos worldwide.
Snow leopards are smaller than the other big cats, but like them, exhibit a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 54 kilograms (60 and 120 lb). Body length ranges from 75 to 130 centimetres (30 to 50 in), with a tail of 75 to 90 percent of that length.
Snow leopards have long thick fur, the base colour of which varies from smoky grey to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. 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 minimize heat loss. Their feet are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and they have fur on their undersides to increase their traction on steep and unstable surfaces, as well as to assist with minimizing heat loss. Snow leopards' tails are long & flexible, helping them to maintain their balance which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit; the tails are also very thick due to storage of fats, and are very thickly covered with fur which, apart from minimizing heat loss, 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 unusual large nasal cavities that help the animal breathe the thin cold air of their mountainous environment.
Snow leopards cannot roar, despite possessing some ossification of the hyoid bone. The presence of this ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard. Snow leopard vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls, and wailing.
The snow leopard's range in central and south Asia is rugged mountainous regions of approximately 1,230,000 square kilometres (470,000 sq mi), which extends through twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The geographic distribution runs from the Hindukush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kashmir, Kunlun, and the Himalaya to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, Sajan, Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. 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.
In summer, the snow leopard usually lives above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 20,000 ft). In winter, it comes down into the forests to an altitude of around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). They prefer broken terrain and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 centimetres (33 in) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.
It leads a largely solitary life, although mothers may rear cubs for extended periods of time in dens in the mountains.
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 ten animals are found here per 100 km2 (40 sq mi); whereas in habitats with sparse prey, an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) supports only five of these cats.
Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territory 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.
Leopards are carnivores and actively hunt their prey. However, like all cats, they are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find including carrion and domestic livestock. They are capable of killing animals three times their size but will readily take much smaller prey such as hares and birds. While unusual among most cats, snow leopards also eat a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs.
The diet of the snow leopard varies across its range and with the time of year, and is dependent on prey availability. In the Himalayas it preys mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) but in other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, and Altai, its main prey consists of Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep, although this has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard's range. Other large animals eaten include various types of wild goats and sheep (such as markhors and urials), other goat-like ruminants such as Himalayan tahr and gorals, plus deer, boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.
It is not averse to taking domestic livestock, which brings it into direct conflict with humans. Herders will kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their animals. However, snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock, readily abandon their kills when threatened, and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach, and can leap as far as 14 meters (46 ft). They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 metres (980 ft). They kill with a bite to the neck, and may drag the prey to a safe location before feeding. They consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single bharal for up to two weeks before hunting again. '
Snow leopards usually mate in late winter and have a gestation period of 90–100 days, so that the cubs are born between April and June. Oestrus typically lasts from five to eight days, and males tend not to seek out another partner after mating, probably because the short mating season does not allow sufficient time to reliably do so. Paired snow leopards mate in the usual felid posture, from twelve to thirty six times a day.
The mother gives birth in a rocky den lined with fur shed from her underside. Litter sizes vary from one to five cubs but two or three is more usual. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and they weigh from 320 to 567 grams (11 to 20.0 oz). The eyes open at around seven days, and the cubs able to walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by ten weeks.
The cubs leave the den at around two to four months of age, but remain with their mother until they become independent after around 18–22 months. Once independent, they may disperse over considerable distances, even crossing wide expanses of flat terrain to seek out new hunting grounds. This likely helps reduce the inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their relatively isolated environment. Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years, although they may live for up to 21 years in captivity.
The total wild population of the snow leopard was estimated at only 4,080 to 6,590 individuals by McCarthy 2003. Many of these estimates are rough and outdated.
There are also 600 to 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.