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Panthera uncia, the Snow Leopard

Panthera uncia

The snow leopard in its natural environment.

The snow leopard in its natural environment.

While it is extremely unlikely that I ever encounter a snow leopard in the wild, I admire predators as a rule, especially the always predatory obligate carnivorous kinds. I like cats, I think they are beautiful. The snow leopard is no different, not to me, it is a thing of beauty.

It probably isn't the most interesting conversation to have. It isn't very useful to go into it much here. The snow leopard wasn't always considered to be a cat of the Panthera genus. Biologist are forever arguing how to go about classifying a species of a thing. In any case, the snow leopard is now considered a species of panther. A rather white panther is this big and powerful cat of the snows. So we call the cat the snow leopard, and we classify it in the Panthera genus. This is all well and good, but the snow leopard is much more of a tiger than it is a leopard. Genetically, the snow leopard is much more closely related to tigers than to leopards. There is also proof the cat that is now the snow leopard is the descendant of cats from long ago who'd interbred with lions. The fact that these cats prefer such cold climates brings the cave lions to mind.

The snow leopard is a high elevation dwelling apex predator. They prefer to live up approximately ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet in the mountains. They can be found at lower elevations too sometimes. Cats are obligate carnivores, and so you can bet they go where their preferred meals are to be found.

These snow leopards are in extreme danger of extinction. There were an estimated four to six and a half thousand adult snow leopards alive, in total, way back in 2003. It is absolutely critical something be done in order to preserve these majestic leopards.

Note the small ears and short, thick legs of the snow leopard


Snow leopards elicit such a fuss for being the rarest of the big cats, and where they live leaves them mostly out of the range of human habitation. Folks who happen upon one are forever affected by the sighting, and surely they feel blessed for having seen a snow leopard in the wild, and in person. The snow leopard isn't a very big, considering it is related to the tiger, the lion, and the actual leopard. Weighing from about sixty to one hundred and sixty pounds, the snow leopard is relatively the same weight as is the cheetah.

Now the comparison to the cheetah was in weight, mind you, not length or height. The snow leopard is a very compact cat. Its stockiness is an adaption born of evolution and cats wanting to live in high elevation climates, but the stockiness of the snow leopard is hardly the only adaptation for cold weather hunting. You can clearly see how small the ears of the snow leopard are in comparison to the ears of other cats. A creature can lose a lot of heat through the ears, and so the snow leopard has smaller surface area on the ears in order to lose less heat through them.

Snow leopard legs are very very short for cats, and very very thick. This is another one of the adaptations for cold weather hunting. The cat looks downright strange the more you look at them. The legs seem completely out of proportion to that muscular body of theirs.

A snow leopard descending a steep incline

This photo is from a zoo.

This photo is from a zoo.

Like the Canadian lynx, the snow leopard has very large, wide paws, and this adaptation aids in traveling about in snowy climates by distributing the weight of the cat more evenly. Snow leopards have very long tails in proportion to their bodies. The tails aid in achieving balance, and of course the snow leopard is forever negotiating steep inclines. The snow leopard's tail is thicker than normal for cats, and the thickness is due to there being more fat stored in the tail, and the thick thick fur. Snow leopards will wrap that tail around them when at rest, think of it as a blanket they've been blessed with always having with them.

In order to breath the frigid air in the environment the snow leopards inhabit, the animals have much deeper nasal passages than do other cats. The air in the high elevations isn't just cold, of course, it is also 'thin' insofar as oxygen content. So the snow leopards developed deeper nasal cavities in order to get the most oxygen from a single breath of cold mountain air.

Here you can see clearly how wide are the paws of the snow leopard


Snow leopard vocalizations

Snow leopards do not have the ability to roar as do lions. This doesn't mean they do not have the ability to make a wide array of vocalized expressions. The chuff, for one thing, and that is something only a tiger can do - besides the snow leopard. As already was mentioned, the snow leopard is really more a tiger than it ever was or will be a leopard. It is considered a sister species to tigers, and a much smaller and higher elevation tiger it is.

What the hell is 'chuffing?' It is a form of non-threatening greeting between the snow leopards and the tigers. The expression is made with the mouth closed by blowing through the nostrils. Snow leopards have more developed nostrils than do other cats. It is done mostly between mother snow leopards to comfort snow leopard kittens. In captivity snow leopards and tigers too - do this chuffing in greetings to their keepers. In this way even captive big cats show their feelings towards their captors. It's interesting, that; or I think it is.

Snow leopards also do hisses, growls, mews, and some wailing. Where I live one can sometimes hear bobcats and cougars wailing away in the night. I assure you it is absolutely terrifying to hear such a thing; but should you know what it is, it is majestic and satisfying.

Global snow leopard distribution map


Where do snow leopards live?

Now the snow leopard doesn't have quite as much range as the global distribution map above may imply, as the snow leopard only inhabits the upper elevations within that range. Now granted, that specific area is an exceedingly elevated area. The ancient civilization and grossly over-populated nation of India has a lot of might and degeneration both, but they're damned sure at least interested in protecting their snow leopards, and they've reintroduced the cheetah's there as well. I certainly hope this works out well. The thing about the snow leopards of India is - there are only between two hundred and six hundred snow leopards even there. Most snow leopards live in other than India, some live further North, and even to the West of there in places not shown on the global distribution map above.

Their habitat extends through twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. China is one of the most influential countries for our conservation efforts, as it contains as much as 60% of all snow leopard habitat areas. China is where most of the snow leopards call home. Luckily, the Chinese are interested in their snow leopards - and they've established a Chinese snow leopard trust.

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Snow leopards head upwards in the Summer months. They're not interested in the warmer climates, they move upwards in elevation as the Sun warms the Earth to escape the heat. Snow leopards will range up to elevations of nineteen thousand feet during the Summers, and this is typically above the tree line. Climate change is proving a problem, more than even human kind itself, towards making life hard for these very elevated big cats.

A snow leopard with prey during the warmer months - note the change in fur color


An adult male yak - this is the one animal in snow leopard territory the snow leopard won't be killing too often

Standing seven feet tall, this is too big a herbivore for the snow leopard to take down very often.

Standing seven feet tall, this is too big a herbivore for the snow leopard to take down very often.

What do snow leopards eat?

A cat is a cat is a cat is a cat. Cats are all obligate carnivores, and so they eat meat almost exclusively. They'll eat anything they can kill, and a cat is always an animal built to kill, and kill things they do awfully well. Cats are muscular and athletic to the extreme - built to kill, and they kill to eat, and even if you feed them, they still want to kill because it is hardwired into their minds through untold millions of years of evolution.

Again, cats are killers. They're good at killing. Like most killers, including humans, cats prefer to eat animals that have hoofed feat. Animals which are mostly herbivorous are the animals which taste the best to us, and the cats feel the same way about it as we do. Little wonder we admire them so much - these cats can literally sneak up on something even three or four times larger than themselves and overpower the thing completely. Humans? Oh, we have to engineer things to kill our hoofed herbivorous animals for the dinner table.

Wild sheep and goats, pikas, hares, and game birds are considered fine fare. and In the summer, they eat mostly smaller prey, such as marmots. Snow leopards will eat the carrion they run into, and sometimes they run into trouble when they prey on domestic sheep or goats. The only animal within snow leopard territories that the cat can't kill is an adult male yak, and that is only if the yak is healthy.

Too few herbivores and the grasses become too overbearing to the ecosystem. Too few apex predators such as snow leopards, and the herbivores eat up all the grasses. Every ecosystem has natural checks and balances, and every creature or living thing under the Sun was evolved towards a purpose.

Snow leopards are extremely secretive and solitary. They may occupy as small a territory as five square miles in places where prey is plentiful. They leave urine and scat scent markers around to let other cats know the area already belongs to another cat.

Usually the only snow leopard socialization is for mating, or mothers with cubs. That's usually, adult snow leopards have been documented to hunt in pairs, They hunt mostly at dusk and dawn, as do most other wild cats.

Snow leopards mating


How long do snow leopards live?

At two to three years of age the snow leopards become sexually mature. They can live nice long lives, for cats, and fifteen to eighteen years isn't out of their reach. In captivity, a snow leopard lived to be twenty five years old once. Probably, the elder snow leopard spent all the years in captivity wishing it had not been so.

Snow leopard mother and cubs


The mating of snow leopards

When it comes to mating snow leopards like to do it in the snow. Go figure. They mate in late winter. The female goes into heat for five to eight days, and a lucky male snow leopard is either so damned pleased with his female mate that he seeks no other, or there isn't enough females around or time for another. You can feel free to imagine that snow leopard males are virtuous or whatnot, but you are probably projecting something onto a big killer cat from the insides of your mind. Hey, mating pairs go at it from twelve to thirty six times in a day. Yes, you read that correctly. Surely they are both rather sated, wouldn't you think? The pregnancy lasts ninety to one hundred days.

The liter size will be from one to five kittens or cubs. Cats are blind and helpless at birth, but their mother will put up one hell of a fight should anything or anyone threaten them. In five weeks they can walk, and are no longer blind. At ten weeks they can leave the nest, poke around a little. Of course they are completely adorable, and of course you want one. You can't have one at all, so just sit there and suck it right up. They've cute little black spots at birth, and those will change as they mature into the familiar rosette style markings. At a year and a half to twenty two months they'll be mature predators seeking out their own territories and a life of slaughtering and eating whatever the hell they can.

A snow leopard in Tibet


The snow leopards are critically endangered

Snow leopards are critically endangered everywhere they live. I'd say you need not worry your pretty little head about it, but you can if you wish, and if you're the type with spare dollars then donating to the snow leopard conservation efforts would be a worthy thing to do. There are many organizations involved in the conservation of snow leopards, and you can pick the one you trust the most to donate to. I suggest the snow leopard network, donate there and you've done a good thing for the planet. As for myself, what I can do is what I'm doing right here.

Do snow leopards attack humans? Well yes, and no. Yes, there have been recorded or documented instances where a snow leopard attacked a human. We're talking about two whole instances. Much more frequent are human attacks on snow leopards. You know how people are, they want that lovely fur. Wearing fur is a controversial topic in a lot of ways, but I don't mind it so much so long as someone isn't killing a critically endangered animal or even a moderately endangered animal for their fur. Besides the fur, we have the quack medicines of old, you know how it goes, people think eating a big cat's testicles will make them potent in the sack, that kind of thing. In Tibet, at least near the Buddhist monasteries, the monks are protecting the snow leopards.

What is nearly always the case when a big cat attacks a human is the cat is old and feeble, it's big sharp teeth have either gone or been dulled over the years, the cat might have arthritis or something - and so it can't much hunt what it used to hunt, but the cat is still hungry now, isn't it? It's usually old and partially crippled with age cats that attack humans.

There are only between four and seven thousand of these very beautiful ghost of the mountain cats living wild and free in our world. The world is big enough for us and the snow leopards. Friends, lets protect them. Thanks for reading.

The beautiful snow leopard

© 2016 Wesman Todd Shaw


Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 02, 2020:

Thanks for your comment, Bushra. There are quite a lot of questions in the world of evolutionary biology, as to exactly what modern big cats evolved from. The American Puma, or Mountain Lion is also one where the Cheetah seems to have shared an ancient relative.

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on February 02, 2020:

I recently read an article on the web that said that the big cat the snow leopard is most closely related to is the cheetah. If that is true, Pakistanis got it right when they named it the 'barfaani cheetah' (snow cheetah). Thank you for an informative post and for asking people to look out for these endangered cats.

Ann Carr from SW England on May 08, 2017:

What a wonderful creature! It would be such a privilege to see one 'in the flesh'. You've covered much detail here and I can tell by the feel of this how much you admire them.

These kind of animals lend themselves to stories and legend, I think. Rare, unattainable and ferocious!

Took me ages to get around to reading this but I'm so glad I did. Thanks.


tebo from New Zealand on March 17, 2016:

A very detailed hub about the snow leopard. Lots of interesting information about their lifestyles, and you have added your own style to this hub which adds to its interest.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on March 06, 2016:

I damn sure hope you get the photography of your dreams!!!!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 05, 2016:

This is one of the 5 cold weather carnivores that I love. Polar bears, gray wolves, Amur Tiger and Amur Leopards are other 4.

I am planning a visit to Hindu Kush mountains to take a picture shot of snow leopard, if I can get that lucky. Let us see what happens.


Kevin W from Texas on March 05, 2016:

Great read on a very beautiful animal. As an animal lover, I would have one if I could. Voted up on your hub Wesman Todd Shaw.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 25, 2016:

Thanks Diana, luckily these cats have a few organizations after their well being.

Diana L Pierce from Potter County, Pa. on February 25, 2016:

Beautiful animals. I have always been drawn to leopard prints and am glad we don't need to harm any of these creatures to enjoy things the same color. Good hub.

Wesman Todd Shaw (author) from Kaufman, Texas on February 25, 2016:

Thanks! Since I'll never get to see such a critter, I guess I just go for reading and writing about one some instead. They make for some pretty pictures for sure!

The Logician from then to now on on February 25, 2016:

This is the best profile I have ever seen of the snow leopard! As a child I was enamored with the snow leopard. I read the book "Quest of the Snow Leopard" by Roy Chapman Andrews and I dreamed of going on an expedition to find it (that was even before I wanted to find the Sasquatch).

Great, no fantastic exposé on the Snow Leopard Shaw!

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