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Uncia uncia [un' sE uh un' sE uh]
This big cat is covered with fur that ranges in color from light gray to smoke gray, shading to white on the belly. The head, neck, and lower limbs are covered with solid spots, while the rest of the body is covered with "rosettes," large rings that often enclose smaller spots; these spots are arranged in distinct rows and get paler in the winter. The fur is very thick, one inch long on the back, two inches long on the tail, and three inches long on the belly.
Well suited for its environment, the snow leopard's round, short ears reduce heat loss and a wide, short nasal cavity heats the chilled outside air before it reaches the sensitive lungs. Also characteristic of snow leopards are the very large and furry paws, functioning both as snow shoes and padding against sharp rocks.
Snow leopards weigh 75-120 pounds, stand about 2 feet at the shoulder, and are 6-7.5 feet long, including a tail of up to 40 inches; males are about 30% larger than females. They use the tail both for balance and covering their body, nose, and mouth during times of sub-zero temperatures.
Distribution and Habitat
Snow leopards are native to the high, rugged mountains of Central Asia, from Afghanistan to Kazakstan and Russia in the north to India and China in the east; China contains about 60% of snow leopard habitat. They prefer the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops, and ravines below the permanent snow line, including coniferous forest scrub, at altitudes tanging from about 3,000 to over 17,000 feet.
Habits and Behaviors
Typically most active at dawn and dusk, but where there are very few people snow leopards may be active throughout the day; if humans are living nearby, they may become primarily nocturnal.
Solitary except for mating and cub rearing, snow leopards maintain home ranges that are marked with urine and feces. They often travel along ridge lines and cliff bases, and choose bedding sites with good views over the surrounding terrain. They have also been known to make long treks out of their home ranges, covering great distances in a short period of time.
Snow leopards make sounds similar to those made by other large cats, including a purr, mew, hiss, growl, moan, and yowl, but they cannot roar due to the physiology of their throat.
An opportunistic predator, the snow leopards most often hunts wild sheep and goats, but will also take smaller fare, such as marmots, hares, and game birds, and have also been known to take domestic livestock. They typically stalk their prey and usually spring from a distance of 20-50 feet, but ambush attacks have been observed.
Snow leopards eat slowly, usually taking 3 or 4 days to consume a prey animal. During that time, the cat remains near the kill site to defend the meal from scavengers like vultures and ravens, eating every few hours until the carcass is bare. Snow leopards hunt a large animal every 8-10 days on average.
Snow leopards also eat grass, twigs, and other vegetation. While this is a common practice among big cats, snow leopards eat more plant material than their feline kin. The vegetation may serve as a source of extra vitamins, aid in digestion, or help the cats eliminate parasites.
Mating occurs between December and March, and most births occur after 100 days of gestation. The young are born in a rocky shelter lined with the mother's fur for warmth. The litter can include from one to five young, with the average two or three. The infants are blind for about nine days. After three months they start to follow the mother for food and are dependent on her for at least the next year. Sexual maturity is reached at the age of two years.
Listed as an endangered species, there are an estimated 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. The main threat to snow leopards is hunting for their fur, but they are also killed as a danger to livestock. Vanishing habitat and the decline of the cats' large mammal prey are also contributing factors.
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This page was last updated on August 31, 2018.