The snow leopard (Uncia uncia or Panthera uncia), sometimes known as the ounce, is a large cat native to the mountain ranges of central and south Asia. The taxonomic position of this species has been subject to change. In the past, many taxonomists included the snow leopard in the genus Panthera, with several of the other largest felids. It was later placed in its own genus, Uncia. However, most recent molecular studies place the species firmly within the genus Panthera, although the exact position remains unclear. Along with the clouded leopard, it represents an intermediate between so-called big cats and smaller specimens, as it cannot roar.
Well known for its beautiful fur, the snow leopard has a soft grey coat with ringed spots and rosettes of black on brown. The fur turns white in the winter. Its tail is heavy with fur and the bottom of its paws is covered with fur for protection against snow and cold. The life span of a snow leopard is 15 to 18 years
Weighing up to 165 lb (75 kg), the snow leopard can be distinguished from other similar species by its proportionately longer tail. The tail helps it maintain its balance on the rugged terrain and unstable surfaces of its habitat. The snow leopard’s tail also doubles as a warmth cover and is used to cover its nose and mouth in very cold conditions. The male’s head is usually much squarer and wider than that of the female. Its big furry feet act as snowshoes, like those of the lynx. In summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at an altitude of up to 19,685 ft (6000 m). In winter, they come down into the forests at an altitude of about 6,562 ft (2000 m). They lead largely solitary lives; although mothers can rear cubs for extended periods of time in cave dens in the mountains.
Snow leopards have grey-and-white fur with numerous rosettes on the flanks and spots on the head and neck. They look similar to jaguars. Their tails are striped. They are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find. They often kill animals three times their size, including domestic livestock. Snow leopards ambush prey from above when possible, as they can jump as far as 49 ft (15 m). Their agility often proves helpful when ambushing prey and traversing through mountains. Their diet consists of ibex, Bharal, Markhor, Urial, boars, as well as marmots and other small rodents.
Habitat, Population, and Home Range
Snow leopards habitat is in central and south Asia, which is a rugged mountainous region. The total estimated wild population of the snow leopard is between 3,500 and 7,000 individuals. In addition, there are 600 to 700 animals in zoos around the world.
An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range. However, it does not defend its range aggressively when encroached upon by other individuals. Home ranges can vary greatly in size.
The snow leopard is a threatened species whose pelts command a very high price in the fur market. During the 1960s, the snow leopard’s total population went down to 1,000 animals, but has since recovered slightly.
Photo by Aaron Logan