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Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia)

Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia)

The snow leopard, also called ounce, has a white, cream, or light grey coat with dark or black spots and rosettes, and a white stomach. The underbelly tends to be lighter colored. The head is spotted in rows, and the ears are often ringed in black. Its fur is long and dense and has great insulation for the sub-zero temperatures. The thick fur is about 5cm long on the back - but almost twice that length on the underparts of the animal.

The snow leopard has a much longer tail in comparison to its body length than other cats. Its long, thick tail can measure up to 35.5 inches (90 cm) long. It helps the snow leopard keep its balance on the steep inclines of its mountainside home and in its leaps up to 46 feet (14 m) horizontally and 20 feet (6 m) vertically. Like its coat, the fur on its tail is long and dense, and it wraps its tail around its body, mouth, and nose like a muffler in extreme temperatures.

The snow leopard's paws are large with fur-covered foot pads for insulation, protection for rocks and for better traction in the snow and ice. The front paws are larger then the back ones. The snow leopard sheds its coat twice annually growing a thicker, lighter colored coat in winter and a shorter, darker coat during the summer. In the winter, the snow leopard's coat is white with brown or black spots. In summer, it's yellowish with brown or black spots.

Distribution and Description

The snow leopard is found in Central Asia from Northwestern China and the Himalayas in high mountain slopes. Most of the year they stay in elevations of up to 19,500 feet (6,000 m) in the upper grasslands to the snow line, but in the winter they move down to elevations of about 6,000 feet (1,800 m). The snow leopard is well adapted for the cold climates of the mountain habitats in which it lives. Besides its thick coat, large furry paws and long, thick tail, snow leopards also have other adaptations for the cold and extreme altitude. They have a well-developed chest and short forelimbs, which are ideal for scaling the mountainous terrain. They have enlarged nasal cavities to help them breathe in high altitudes. And, they have smaller, more numerous red blood cells, so they can get enough oxygen into its bloodstream at these extreme altitudes.

The average snow leopard is 3-4 feet and about 24 inches high at the shoulder. Snow leopards are smaller than most big cats, weighing in at 77-121 pounds (35-55 kg). They are easily distinguished from other spotted cats by their proportionately longer tails and long fur - the other spotted cats (leopards, clouded leopards, cheetahs and jaguars) have much shorter fur. The male's head is usually much squarer and wider than that of the female. They are also quite a bit larger, weighing up to 120 pounds (54 kg), while females are somewhat smaller, weighing up to 90 pounds (41 kg). The snow leopard's skull is large, short and broad with a short muzzle, resembling the Siberian lynx in its appearance. They have round pupils like the great cats, varying in color from pale yellow to green-grey.

Although the snow leopard shares its name with the common leopard, it is not believed to be closely related to it or the other members of the Pantherine group. It was recently reclassified as the sole member of the genus Uncia uncia. Its previous classification was Panthera uncia.

Hunting and Eating

This secretive cat is a solitary creature except when a female has young with her, and when they pair up for mating season. They prefer hunting at dawn or dusk (though they are also active at night), typically searching for prey along stream lines that they will later ambush. Snow leopards commonly follow migrating prey and have annual migrating routines. Their light-colored fur with dark rosettes help camouflage it from its prey. Snow leopards stalk their prey, and when they get close enough, the snow leopard will leap and clamp on the animal's neck. Sometimes they will drop from above onto their victim.

Snow leopards are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, and they are capable of bringing down animals up to three times their own body weight. They mainly eat blue sheep and ibex (wild mountain goats). But, they'll also eat Asian ibex, musk deer, hares, boars, marmots, pikas, ground-dwelling birds, small yaks, goats and domestic livestock if desperate.

A snow leopard needs to bring down about 20 to 30 blue sheep a year to survive. From a single carcass, the cat can feed for several days, the cold environment preventing the meat from spoiling. Snow leopards have no competition from other large predators and so do not have the same trouble protecting a kill as other big cats. A rare exception to this is the very adaptable leopard which sometimes hunts within the lower altitudes of snow leopard ranges.

Vocal Communication

Snow leopards are classified as big cats, but they can't roar. They have the same elastic segment in their hyoid bone that lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards have, so they purr the same way big cats do. But, due to the under-development of the fibro-elastic tissue that forms part of the vocal apparatus, they can't roar. Even though snow leopards don't roar, they do produce many sounds including chirps and a characteristic "LOUD MOAN".