Snow Leopard

Panthera uncia

Quick Bio for Snow Leopards:

Status: Endangered
have from 1-5 cubs, usually 2
Weight: 20-80 kg
Diet: Carnivore

Physical description of Snow Leopards

The distinctive feature of the snow leopard is its long fur and scarf-like tail. The harsh climate of the mountains gets extremely cold in winter, and the fur is among the longest of all cats. The fur on the tail is also longer than the rest of the body and can be wrapped around the cat to help it stay warm. The longer coat of the winter is molted in the summer. The ears of a snow leopard are also quite a bit smaller than other cats to help reduce heat loss.

The tail is over 75 % the length of the body adding nearly a meter to the average 1.2 m long cat. It is mainly used for balance. In difficult mountain terrain, swinging the tail solidly helps the cat maintain balance, much like the cheetah uses its tail for help in quick turns. This ability is a benefit during hunting on the steep, craggy slopes of the Himalayas.

Throughout the winter, all the rocky slopes are covered in snow, and of course, the snow leopard must also adapt to this. Its paws are almost 10 x 10 cm in size. These massive pads (relative to other cats of its size) help to prevent it from sinking into the deep snow and provide an advantage over hooved prey animals who struggle to run in winter conditions.

Colourwise, snow leopards vary from grey to golden, sometimes with white on the underside. Like leopards, they have a rosette pattern for camouflage, which can be seen as stripes in younger animals.

Distribution and habitat of Snow Leopards

Snow Leopards live across the Tibetan Plateau, from Mongolia to India; though this area is large, it does not mean that their numbers are enormous. The Himalayan plateau is a harsh place, even for snow leopards. The mountains of Northern India and Pakistan through to Western Mongolia are sparsely populated by most species, and the snow leopard is no exception. The exceptionally harsh climate limits both the cat and its prey.

Snow leopards inhabit the alpine zone above the tree line during the summer but come down to lower elevations during the winter when snow cover is deep. This is mostly because the animals they prey on in the mountains follow a similar pattern. The cats like to occupy steep rocky areas, sometimes lounging on the mountain ridges where they have a view in multiple directions to scan for prey.

The size of the home range is variable, depending on the topography and prey accessibility.

The majority of snow leopards live from about 3,000 to 4,500 m above sea level. But they can be found from 1000 m above sea level to over 5,500 m. However, across their range, these altitudes are relatively barren landscapes and often are shrubland, which is the preferred hunting ground of the snow leopard. They stay away from dense forest but sometimes can be encountered in open forest areas.

Snow leopard (Panthera uncia) walking across a rocky cliff.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Snow leopard (Panthera uncia) walking across a rocky cliff.

Snow Leopard behaviour

Snow leopards are extremely hard to find in the wild as they are well-camouflaged and constantly roaming their territory. They sleep in a different place every night and tend to be on the move throughout the day. Their activity is generally during the dusk and dawn when it is hard to spot their grey camouflage against the background rocks.

While they have large home ranges, snow leopards often stay in one region for extended periods before moving on to another. During the mating season, their ranges will overlap. However, the rest of the time, they will mark their territory clearly with scent marks and spraying, and defend their home territory from intruders. Males seem to be more aggressive towards other males than towards females who stray into their territory.

When it comes to hunting, snow leopards need to be highly agile, as their primary prey is mountain goats or similar species. Their ability to jump and climb mountains is rather impressive. They have extra long hind legs, which gives them exceptional jumping skills. This is necessary to narrow large distances to prey quickly. Prey can be pretty challenging to reach on the cliff’s edge. Simple running would not be anywhere near as effective in reaching prey almost instantly from the time the snow leopard breaks cover.

For a cat that is hard to study, we know quite a lot about their communication. That is because their loud calls to one another echo across the valleys.

Females are pretty vocal during estrus. They call to attract males. Given the size of the ranges and limited numbers of individuals, it is unlikely that a male will come across the female’s scent markings without encouragement to look for them.

Snow leopards also incorporate a large amount of body language into their communication, using their ears, faces, and even tails. However, the primary communication channel is leaving permanent messages for those who come after them. This is done with urine spraying, head rubbing, and even scraping on the limited trees in the area. This communication is mostly for territory marking.

What do Snow Leopards eat?

All cats are hunters; some, like the Canadian Lynx, are specialists, but the snow leopard does not discriminate. Given its harsh habitat, it seizes every opportunity to get a meal.

Prey is often mountain goats or sheep, animals that are just a bit bigger than the cat itself. However, a snow leopard will prey on anything from pikas to yaks. In the mountains, prey is not easy to chase down, so anything goes.

Common prey is the Markhor, a mountain goat, and the more common blue sheep. As is the case with many predators, one of the biggest threats to their livelihood is that of humans hunting the cat’s prey, and in some areas, the populations of prey animals have been severely depleted.

Mating and Parental care of Snow Leopards

Snow leopards, like other cats, are solitary. Recent camera trap sightings question this older information, having captured males and females on camera together outside of the mating season.

However, at the moment, encounters are generally considered rare other than during the courtship period. Snow leopards come together in the winter, mainly in January or February, and 3 to 4 months later, we have kittens. The female makes a big show presenting herself to the male, who then departs to raise the young herself.

2 or 3 cubs are born sometime around May (though this is very variable) and spend the whole summer nursing. The cubs also eat meat brought back by the mother while still suckling. Once weaned, they still depend on their mother for at least another six months while they learn to hunt in one of the harshest environments possible. It is likely that the family group stays together for nearly two years.

As the mother leaves the den to hunt regularly during the first three months, it is crucial that the den is a safe place for the cubs. From about three months on, they leave the den to accompany their mother on the hunt, but it takes a long time before the cubs get involved and even longer until they are capable of hunting for themselves.

Who preys on Snow Leopards

The only threat to the snow leopard is humans. Snow leopards are an apex predator. It is possible that adults, specifically males, prey on snow leopard cubs that aren’t their own, but this would not cause an inherent threat to the species.

How long do Snow Leopards live?

Because of the harsh environment, the limited numbers of cats, and the inaccessibility of the terrain, we don’t have sufficient data on snow leopards. Captive animals do help us learn more about the creatures and so we can apply this to our conservation efforts. They live up to 21 years in captivity, so we must assume they live less in the wild. While it is evident that capturing pretty animals for zoos is not a great idea for conservation anymore, we must not just discard what we have learned from previous practices that we now know were not the most ethical.

Snow Leopards and their ecosystem

The snow leopard has a vital role in the ecosystem, maintaining the balance of large herbivores within their ranges. The knock-on effects, known as a trophic cascade, protect the balance of the lower food chain.

The snow leopard is something of an icon of the conservation world. Building support for the snow leopard means improving its habitat and, consequently, the numerous other species in its range. As a flagship species, it is much more visible in conservation circles than some of the smaller animals living in the snow leopard’s mountains. By protecting the habitat, we help every animal that lives there.

A male Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) guards its kill from foxes in the stunning landscape of the Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India.
Licensed from Shutterstock
A male Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia) guards its kill from foxes in the stunning landscape of the Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Impact of Snow Leopards on the human economy

The main economic benefits are beauty and ecosystem control. Of course, being a ‘spokesperson’ for conservation also brings massive benefits.

Snow leopards certainly have a negative effect on the human economy in areas where their prey has been decimated and their habitat has been invaded by farmers. They prey on livestock. Snow leopards are not recorded as ever having attacked people despite their potential.

On balance, the conservation of snow leopards will lead to a better ecosystem for the humans who share the harsh living conditions on the Himalayan Plateau.

Conservation status and human impact on Snow Leopards

With only 5000 snow leopards in the wild, the IUCN considers them endangered.

Counting, however, is difficult. Despite this, reasonable estimates can be made, and it is thought that the population has declined significantly since 1990, by about 20%. This is due to habitat destruction and interference. Snow leopards are also persecuted by marginal societies as they prey on livestock.

Climate change can potentially increase this modification in habitat conditions and put more pressure on a cat who already lives at the limit.

Other important information about Snow Leopards

The snow leopard is generally known in Latin as Panthera uncia, but the name Uncia uncia is also used.

Snow Leopard in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Panthera uncia
French Names
Panthère de Neige, Once, Irbis
German Names
Schneeleopard
Spanish Names
Leopardo de las Nieves, Irbis
Swahili Names
Chui-theluji

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