Snow leopard

Snow leopard
Snow leopard
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Uncia (disputed)
O'Brien and Johnson 2007[Full citation needed]
Species: uncia
Binomial name
Uncia uncia
(Schreber, 1775)

see text

Range map
  • Felis irbis Ehrenberg, 1830 (= Felis uncia Schreber, 1775), by subsequent designation (Palmer, 1904).[2]
  • Panthera uncia Schreber, 1775

The snow leopard (Uncia uncia or Panthera uncia) is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of South Asia and Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change and its exact taxonomic position will not be resolved until further studies are conducted.

Snow leopards live between 3,000 and 5,500 metres (9,800 and 18,000 ft) above sea level in the rocky mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. Their secretive nature means that their exact numbers are unknown, but it has been estimated that between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild and between 600 and 700 in zoos worldwide.[3]

Snow leopards are smaller than the other big cats but, like them, exhibit a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 55 kg (60 and 120 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (170 lb) and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb).[4][5] Body length ranges from 75 to 130 centimetres (30 to 50 in), with the tail adding a further 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 in) to that length.[6][7] These cats stand about 60 cm (24 in) at the shoulder.[8]

Snow leopards have long thick fur, and their base color varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark gray to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or gray in color.[6][7]

Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Snow leopards' tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due to storage of fats and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.[7][9]

The snow leopard has a short muzzle and domed forehead, containing unusual large nasal cavities that help the animal breathe the thin, cold air of their mountainous environment.[6]

Snow leopards cannot roar, despite possessing partial ossification of the hyoid bone. This partial ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but new studies show that the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard.[10][11] Snow leopard vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls, and wailing.


Naming and etymology

Both the Latinised genus name, Uncia, and the occasional English name "ounce" are derived from the Old French once, originally used for the European lynx. "Once" itself is believed to have arisen by back-formation from an earlier word "lonce" – the "L" of "lonce" was construed as an abbreviated "le" ("the"), leaving "once" to be perceived as the animal's name. This, like the English version "ounce", became used for other lynx-sized cats, and eventually for the snow-leopard.[12][13]

The snow leopard is also known in its native lands as shan (Ladakhi), irves (Mongolian: ирвэс), waawrin prraang (Pashto: واورين پړانګ), bars or barys (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), ilbirs (Kyrgyz: Илбирс ) and barfani chita - "snow cheetah" (Urdu).

Taxonomy and evolution

Closeup of a male snow leopard

The snow leopard was first described by Schreber in 1775, in the Kopet-Dag Mountains in Turkmenistan and Iran. In the past, many taxonomists included the snow leopard in the genus Panthera, together with the other largest extant felids, but later it was placed in its own genus, Uncia. It was thought not to be closely related to the leopard (Panthera pardus). However, a recent molecular study placed the species firmly within the genus Panthera, its closest relative being the tiger (Panthera tigris)[14]. Its exact position remains unclear, and many sources still treat it as Uncia pending further studies.[15]

A few subspecies have been proposed for animals living in different geographical regions. With the possible exception of U. u. baikalensis-romanii, which requires further evaluation, these subspecies were generally not considered valid.[2] The Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognizes two subspecies: U. u. uncia, from central Asia northwestwards to Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides in western China and the Himalayas.[16]

Biology and behavior

In summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at an altitude from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 20,000 ft). In winter, snow leopards come down into the forests to an altitude of around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). Snow leopards prefer broken terrain and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 centimetres (33 in) deep, although snow leopards prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.[6]

The snow leopard leads a largely solitary life, although mothers may rear cubs in dens in the mountains for extended periods.

An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, a home range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) to 40 km2 (15 sq mi) and up to five to ten animals are found here per 100 km2 (40 sq mi); whereas in habitats with sparse prey, an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) supports only five of these cats.[10]

Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territory and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock.[6]

Snow leopards are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk.[7] They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.

Hunting and diet

Showing teeth at Taronga Zoo, Australia

Snow leopards are carnivores and actively hunt their prey, though, like all cats, they are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, including carrion and domestic livestock. They can kill animals three times their size, such as the Bharal, Himalayan Tahr and Markhor but will readily take much smaller prey such as hares and birds.[9] Unusually among cats, snow leopards also eat a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs.[6]

The diet of the snow leopard varies across its range and with the time of year, and depends on prey availability. In the Himalayas, it preys mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep) but in other mountain ranges such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, and Altai, its main prey consists of Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep, although this has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard's range.[7][17] Other large animals eaten include various types of wild goats and sheep (such as markhors and urials), other goat-like ruminants such as Himalayan tahr and gorals, plus deer, boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.[7][9][17][18]

The snow leopard is not averse to taking domestic livestock, which brings it into direct conflict with humans. Herders will kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their animals.[9] Snow leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.[6]

Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach, and can leap as far as 14 meters (46 ft).[19] They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 metres (980 ft). They kill with a bite to the neck, and may drag the prey to a safe location before feeding. They consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single bharal for two weeks before hunting again.[6]

Reproduction and life cycle

Snow Leopard cubs at the Cat Survival Trust, Welwyn, UK.

Snow leopards are unusual among large cats in that they have a well-defined birth peak. They usually mate in late winter, marked by a noticeable increase in marking and calling. The Snow Leopards have a gestation period of 90–100 days, so that the cubs are born between April and June. Oestrus typically lasts from five to eight days, and males tend not to seek out another partner after mating, probably because the short mating season does not allow sufficient time. Paired snow leopards mate in the usual felid posture, from 12 to 36 times a day.[6]

The mother gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. Litter sizes vary from one to five cubs, but the average is 2.2. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 567 grams (11 to 20.0 oz). The eyes open at around seven days, and the cubs can walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by 10 weeks.[6] Also when they are born they have full black spots and turn into rosettes as they grow up.[citation needed]

The cubs leave the den at around two to four months of age, but remain with their mother until they become independent after around 18–22 months. Once independent, they may disperse over considerable distances, even crossing wide expanses of flat terrain to seek out new hunting grounds. This likely helps reduce the inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their relatively isolated environment. Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years, although in captivity they can live for up to 21 years.[6]



A snow leopard at the Toronto Zoo

The snow leopard's habitat in central and south Asia is rugged mountainous regions of approximately 1,230,000 square kilometres (470,000 sq mi), which extends through twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kashmir, Kunlun, and the Himalaya to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, Sajan, Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.[7][9][20]

Conservation status

There are numerous agencies working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems. These include the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Network, and the Panthera Corporation. These groups and numerous national governments from the snow leopard’s range, non-profits and donors from around the world recently worked together at the 10th International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing. Their focus on research, community programs in snow leopard regions and education programs are aimed at understanding the cat's needs as well as the needs of the villagers and herder communities affecting snow leopards' lives and habitat.[21][22]

Population and protected areas

Snow leopard at zoo d'Amnéville, France, showing the thickly furred tail
Snow leopard

The total wild population of the snow leopard was estimated at only 4,080 to 6,590 individuals by McCarthy, et al., 2003 (see table below). Many of these estimates are rough and outdated.[1]

In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snow leopard on its Red List of Threatened Species as globally "Endangered"; the same threat category was applied in the assessment conducted in 2008.

There are also 600-700 snow leopards in zoos around the world.[23]

Range Country Habitat Area
Afghanistan 50,000 100-200?
Bhutan 15,000 100-200?
China 1,100,000 2,000-2,500
India 75,000 200-600
Kazakhstan 50,000 180-200
Kyrgyzstan 105,000 150-500
Mongolia 101,000 500-1,000
Nepal 30,000 300-500
Pakistan 80,000 200-420
Tajikistan 100,000 180-220
Uzbekistan 10,000 20-50
Snow leopard in the San Diego Zoo.

Protected areas:

Much progress has been made in securing the survival of the Snow Leopard, with Snow Leopards being successfully bred in captivity. The animals usually give birth to two to three cubs in a litter, but can give birth to up to seven in some cases.

Snow Leopard at Toronto zoo.

A "surprisingly healthy" population of Snow Leopards has been found living at 16 locations in the isolated Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan giving rise to hopes for survival of wild Snow Leopards in that region.[28]

Relationships with humans

Snow leopard in film and television

Pakistan is among few lucky countries where snow leopards can be found high up in the snow bound areas of its northern region, specially in Khunjrab (bordering China). They are found at altitudes varying between 3,000 and 5,500 meters . The snow leopard is listed in the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Animals as Endangered. Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist along with cameraman Mark Smith, spent 18 months following this most enigmatic of animals. Thus eventually gaining valuable insights into the day to day life of the snow leopards. Set in the wilds of the Hindu Kush, this film profiles a much misunderstood part of the world, going beyond the myth to tell the snow leopard's real story Snow Leopard of Pakistan - Beyond the Myth.[29]

Planet Earth has a segment on snow leopards. The series took some of the first video of snow leopards in the wild, and also featured a snow leopard hunting a markhor.[30] The first documentary on snow leopards was made by Hugh Miles, named Silent Roar - In Search of the Snow leopard. The chief antagonist in the 3D animated film Kung Fu Panda is depicted as a snow leopard.[31]

Snow leopard in heraldry

Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for Turkic people of Central Asia, where the animal is known as irbis or bars, so it is widely used in heraldry and as an emblem.

The snow leopard (in heraldry known as the ounce) (Aq Bars) is a national symbol for Tatars and Kazakhs: a snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, and a winged snow leopard is found on Tatarstan's coat of arms. A similar leopard is featured on the coat of arms of North Ossetia-Alania. The Snow Leopard award was given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7000m peaks. In addition, the snow leopard is the symbol of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.


  1. ^ a b c Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. & Habib, B. (2008). Panthera uncia. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 9 October 2008.
  2. ^ a b Wozencraft, W. Christopher (16 November 2005). "Order Carnivora (pp. 532-628)". In Wilson, Don E., and Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. (2142 pp.). pp. 548. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  3. ^ Snow Leopard Trust information page
  4. ^ Boitani, Luigi, Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mammals. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Books (1984), ISBN 978-0671428051
  5. ^ [1] (2011).
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  7. ^ a b c d e f g "Snow Leopard Fact Sheet". Snow Leopard Trust. 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c d e "Snow Leopard profile". National Geographic. 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  10. ^ a b Nowak, Ronald M. (1999). Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-5789-9. 
  11. ^ Weissengruber, GE; G Forstenpointner, G Peters, A Kübber-Heiss, and WT Fitch (September 2002). "Hyoid apparatus and pharynx in the lion (Panthera leo), jaguar (Panthera onca), tiger (Panthera tigris), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and domestic cat (Felis silvestris f. catus)". Journal of Anatomy. Anatomical Society of Great Britain and Ireland. pp. 195–209. doi:10.1046/j.1469-7580.2002.00088.x. Retrieved 2007-05-20. 
  12. ^ Allen, Edward A (1908). "English Doublets". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 23 (new series 16): 214. 
  13. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press. 1933: Ounce
  14. ^ Davis, B.W.; Li G., Murphy W.J (2010 Jul). "Supermatrix and species tree methods resolve phylogenetic relationships within the big cats, Panthera (Carnivora: Felidae)". Molecular Phylogenetic Evolution (56): 64–76. PMID 20138224. 
  15. ^ Johnson, W.E.; Eizirik, E., Pecon-Slattery, J., Murphy, W.J., Antunes, A., Teeling, E. & O'Brien, S.J. (6 January 2006). "The Late Miocene radiation of modern Felidae: A genetic assessment". Science 311 (5757): pp73–77. doi:10.1126/science.1122277. PMID 16400146. Retrieved 2008-10-24. 
  16. ^ Wilson DE, Mittermeier RA (eds) (2009) Handbook of the Mammals of the World. Vol. 1. Carnivores. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona
  17. ^ a b Jackson, Rodney; Hunter, Don O. (1996). "Snow Leopard Survey and Conservation Handbook Part III" (pdf). Snow Leopard Survey and Conservation Handbook. Seattle, Washington, & Fort Collins Science Center, Colorado, US: International Snow Leopard Trust & U.S. Geological Survey. pp. 66. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  18. ^ unknown (2004). "Conservation of the Snow Leopard in Nepal" (pdf). Seattle, US: The Snow Leopard Network. pp. 2. Retrieved 2009-03-14. 
  19. ^ "Animal Bytes: snow leopard". San Diego Zoo. 2007. Retrieved 2007-05-05. 
  20. ^ Mammals of the Soviet Union. Vol III: Carnivores (Feloidea).
  21. ^ Theile, Stephanie "Fading footprints; the killing and trade of snow leopards" TRAFFIC International, 2003
  22. ^ Foreign Correspondent, "Cats in the Clouds", Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2009.
  23. ^ "Population and Protections". Snow Leopard Trust. 2008. Retrieved 2008-07-03. 
  24. ^ UNESCO World Heritage Centre Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks. Brief Description. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  25. ^ Snow Leopard Conservancy. 2006. Training park managers in the conservation of snow leopards. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  26. ^ UNESCO World Heritage Center. Sagarmatha National Park: Brief Description. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  27. ^ Snow Leopard Network. 2005. Camera Trapping of Snow Leopards in the Muzat Valley. Retrieved 27 November 2006.
  28. ^ "Snow Leopards found in Afghanistan." Ben Farmer. The Telegraph, Saturday 16 July 2011. [2]
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^ "Kung Fu Panda a martial arts masterpiece". Reuters. May 16, 2008. Retrieved June 1, 2008. 

External links

Handbook of the Mammals of the World 1. Carnivores, Chiefly Edited by Don E. Wilson and Russell A. Mittermeier

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Snow leopard — Snow Snow, n. [OE. snow, snaw, AS. sn[=a]w; akin to D. sneeuw, OS. & OHG. sn[=e]o, G. schnee, Icel. sn[ae]r, snj[=o]r, snaj[=a]r, Sw. sn[ o], Dan. snee, Goth. snaiws, Lith. sn[ e]gas, Russ. snieg , Ir. & Gael. sneachd, W. nyf, L. nix, nivis, Gr.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • snow leopard — n. a large, whitish cat (Panthera uncia) of the mountains of central Asia, having many dark blotches on its long, thick fur …   English World dictionary

  • Snow Leopard — Taxobox name = Snow LeopardMSW3 Wozencraft | pages = 548|id=14000269] status = EN status system = iucn3.1 status ref =IUCN2008|assessors=Jackson, R., Mallon, D., McCarthy, T., Chundaway, R.A. Habib, B.|year=2008|id=22732|title=Panthera… …   Wikipedia

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  • snow leopard — a long haired, leopardlike feline, Panthera (Uncia) uncia, of mountain ranges of central Asia, having a relatively small head and a thick, creamy gray coat with rosette spots: an endangered species. Also called ounce2. [1865 70] * * * or ounce… …   Universalium

  • snow leopard — snieginis leopardas statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas taksono rangas rūšis atitikmenys: lot. Uncia uncia angl. ounce; snow leopard vok. Irbis; Schneeleopard rus. ирбис; снежный барс; снежный леопард pranc. léopard des neiges; panthère des… …   Žinduolių pavadinimų žodynas

  • snow leopard — snow′ leop ard n. zool. mam a longhaired, leopardlike cat, Panthera (Uncia) uncia, of mountains of central Asia, having a creamy gray coat with rosette spots Also called ounce II Etymology: 1865–70 …   From formal English to slang

  • snow leopard — noun Date: 1866 a large cat (Panthera uncia syn. Uncia uncia) of upland central Asia with long heavy grayish white fur irregularly marked with brownish black spots, rosettes, and rings …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • snow leopard — noun a large feline mammal, Uncia uncia, native to mountain ranges of central Asia Syn: ounce …   Wiktionary