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Snow Leopard Definition
Snow Leopard is a carnivorous solitary big cat belongs to the genus Panthera and comes under the order Carnivora. This alpine cat is found in the mountains of Central Asia and weighs around 35-55 kg.
In some countries like India and China, they are found in higher altitudes while in Russia and Mongolia they are found in lower altitudes. They prefer the ravines, cliffs, and rocky outcrops that have rugged terrain as it can give them a good cover and also a clear view of prey.
In the sub-alpine and alpine zone they live in, they can easily travel in this thick covered layer of snow due to their adaptations in form of large paws.
Snow Leopard Behavior and Ecology
They are crepuscular animals that are active during dusk and dawn. These carnivorous cats ambush their prey while actively hunting. Their prey includes goats like argali sheep, wild sheep, and wild sheep.
They also hunt smaller mammals like voles, hares, and marmots. They form opportunistic hunters and may also hunt livestock or carrion. They can survive on a single large prey for up to 2 weeks. They are solitary animals, that may come together for mating during the breeding season and young cubs often accompany their mother.
They occupy large home ranges and mark them by urine scent marks. These territories can range up to several hundred square kilometers and they patrol these regions regularly.
A large home range ensures food availability. The home ranges of males do not overlap but the home range of a male can overlap with the territory of females.
Snow Leopard Reproduction
Snow Leopard’s breeding season is towards the end of winter and the resulting cubs are born between April and June. They give birth to 2 – 3 cubs inside a rocky den lined with a fur shed.
The cubs are born blind, but at the end of 1 week they can open their eyes and by 10 weeks they are fully weaned. They may leave the den when they are 2-4 months old, but they accompany their mother till they are 18-22 months old. When they are old enough to leave they search for large hunting grounds.
Fun Facts about Snow Leopards!
Snow Leopards is a carnivorous predators, show some interesting biological behaviors and concepts.
No Roar: The genus Panthera is comprised of tigers, jaguars, lions, and leopards. But one characteristic that sets them apart from the other species of this genus is that they are unable to roar.
It was thought earlier that the incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone produces the ability to roar but this feature is also present in snow leopards. But it is known now that the specific morphology of vocal folds in the larynx is responsible for this ability that is lacking in snow leopards.
They communicate using other sounds like purrs, growls, and hisses similar to other big cats. It was earlier thought these cats were the first to diverge within the genus Panthera, but it has been recently established that it actually forms a sister clade with tigers.
These 2 groups diverged between 4.62 and 1.82 million years ago and further diverged from each other around 3.7-2.7 mya. The ability to roar might have been an ancestral feature that got lost in snow leopards after their divergence.
Alpine Adaptations: As they are native to cold alpine habitats, they have adapted and evolved various adaptations that aid in their survival.
Snow leopards have dense woolly underfur, long hair, round and small ears. These features aid to conserve body heat and reduce heat loss. These features can also be seen in arctic foxes and polar bears.
Other adaptations include long thick tails that they wrap around their body to keep warm and an enlarged nasal cavity that helps to warm the air before it enters the lungs. They also exhibit adaptations that help them to live on rugged mountainsides.
They possess long tails and short forelegs that help them to keep their balance. Their long hind legs aid them to jump up to 30 feet during hunting. Their light-colored fur along with dark spots also helps them to camouflage with the mountains.
Apex Predator: These big cats are apex predators and form the topmost trophic levels and do not have natural predators. Other examples of apex predators include sharks, crocodiles, and eagles.
They can exert top to bottom influence on ecosystems as they can check the population of other prey and predators. Human interventions in form of poaching of apex predators can trigger a trophic cascade where population sizes of lower food chain species are dramatically altered.
This will lead to changes in biodiversity, effect on ecosystem structure, and nutrient cycling.
Snow Leopard Citations
- Range contraction of snow leopard (Panthera uncia). PLoS One . 2019 Aug 1;14(8):e0218460.
- The snow leopard‘s questionable comeback. Science . 2018 Mar 9;359(6380):1110.
- Prey preferences of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia): regional diet specificity holds global significance for conservation. PLoS One . 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88349.
- A spotlight on snow leopard conservation in China. Integr Zool . 2016 Jul;11(4):308-21.