|Geographical Range||Central Asia|
|Habitat||Mountain grasslands, scrub, and open forest|
|Scientific Name||Uncia uncia|
Able to leap 50 feet horizontally! Able to jump 20 feet vertically! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's a snow leopard!
Snow leopards are well adapted to the cold climate of their homeland. They have an extra-large nasal cavity, which warms the air they breathe. And their large paws have fur-covered foot pads that act like built-in "snowshoes." Last but not least, they have long body hair with an under-layer of dense fur that can be up to five inches thick. This plush coat is colored to blend in with the snowy, rocky surroundings: gray and white with black spots.
Snow leopards live at high elevations, and their bodies are well-suited to mountainous conditions. They have a well-developed chest, short forelimbs, and a three-foot-long tail that helps them keep their balance.
Snow leopards stand about two feet tall. Males weigh up to 120 pounds, while females are somewhat smaller, weighing up to 90 pounds.
Snow leopards' camouflaged coat helps them sneak up on their prey. Once the cats are about 100 feet from their intended victim, they make their final rush.
Their favored prey are blue sheep and ibex (wild goats), but they also feed on domestic animals such as horses. Some of these animals are bigger than the snow leopards themselves. In fact, these cats can bring down prey three times their weight!
Though large animals make up most of their diet, snow leopards also hunt smaller prey, including marmots, hares, and birds.
Snow leopards mate from January to March. A female gives birth in spring or early summer, after a pregnancy of about 100 days. The kittens are born in a rocky shelter that the mother lines with her fur for warmth. The litter can include as many as five babies, but the average is two or three.
The kittens are very active by three months, but they may stay with their mom for one-and-a-half to almost two years.
Snow leopards are solitary, spending most of their time alone. The only exceptions are moms caring for their dependent offspring, and males and females pairing up for mating season.
So how do males and females find each other when they're ready to mate? As the cats travel, they mark their path with feces and urine. These aromas carry important information about the cats' identity, gender, readiness to breed, and the time the scent-marks were made.
Wild snow leopards are in serious trouble. It's been estimated that the wild population numbers only 4,500 to 7,500 animals.
What's happening to these cats? They are hunted for their coats as well as their bones, which are ground up and used in traditional Chinese medicine. They compete for food with people, who often kill snow leopard's favored prey. And when the cats turn to domestic livestock for food, they're often shot by ranchers.
So what's being done to save these animals? For one thing, an international agreement bans the trade in snow leopards or their products. Unfortunately, the protection is not always enforced. More important for snow leopards' survival, perhaps, is a network of protected areas in the mountains of central Asia.
There are also conservation organizations, such as the Snow Leopard Trust, which are working to save these animals.
What can you do to help snow leopards? Don't buy any products made from these animals, and tell your friends and family to do the same.
- Unlike other large cats, snow leopards can't roar. Their vocal tract lacks the thick pad of elastic tissue that enables other cats to roar.
- A snow leopard's eye color -- pale green or gray -- is very unusual for cats.