Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 39 to 51 inches (99 to 130 centimeters), females are slightly smaller; tail length 31 to 39 inches (80 to 100 centimeters)
Shoulder height: about 24 inches (60 centimeters)
Weight: males, 99 to 121 pounds (45 to 55 kilograms); females, 77 to 88 pounds (35 to 40 kilograms)
Life span: up to 18 years in zoos
Gestation: 98 to 104 days
Number of young at birth: 1 to 4 (2 is average litter size)
Weight at birth: 11 to 25 ounces (320 to 708 grams)
Age of maturity: 2 to 3 years of age
Conservation status: endangered
Surefooted climbers: snow leopards have been seen
at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet (6,000 meters) in summer, which is just
a few thousand feet short of climbing Mt. Everest! They actually prefer
steep slopes, cliffs, and ravines.
Who knew that these cats can JUMP and pounce on prey that's as far as 45 feet (14 meters) away! Given the rocky terrain they call home, snow leopards need to be great leapers and jumpers to travel between cliffs and across ravines.
The long, thick, and luxurious tail acts as a built-in comforter when the leopard wraps it around its body for added warmth.
- Clouded Leopard
- Fishing Cat
- Lynx & Bobcat
- Mountain Lion
- Small Cat
Snow leopard growl
Mammals: Snow Leopard
Living at the top of the world
The legendary snow leopards are rarely seen in the wild, as they live at high elevations. Their secretive behavior and remote habitat among the highest mountains in the world adds to their mystery. Because of their shy behavior and uncanny, almost mystical ability to disappear among the rocks, they have entered the folklore of local peoples in many countries and have been described as shape-changing mountain spirits. They are almost impossible to locate and study in the wild because they blend in with their surroundings so well. Add the extreme conditions of cold and steep terrain, often beyond the limits of human endurance, and it becomes almost impossible to trap and radio tag snow leopards for research purposes.
A unique cat in an extreme habitat
So how do snow leopards live at these high altitudes? They have a relatively small head with a short, broad nose that has a large nasal cavity that passes cold air through and warms it. Huge paws have fur on the bottom that protects and cushions their feet for walking, climbing, and jumping. The furry paws also give the cat great traction on snow. Short, well-developed front legs and chest muscles help with balance when climbing. The snow leopard's incredibly long and beautiful tail also helps with balance and is sometimes as long as the cat's body! Smoky gray and blurred black markings provide the snow leopard with superb camouflage in the mountains. No wonder they have been called "ghost cats"!
When snow leopards meet
Living in such rocky terrain, it isn't easy for snow leopards to find one another. So the cats advertise their presence by leaving distinct signals along their routes. The cats use scent marking and claw raking on boulders and tree trunks. Sometimes they will deposit urine and/or feces samples in scraped soil depressions as messages. Even cheek rubbing can spread scent, so all these smell "advertisements" can remain for days and weeks to mark off ranges.
When breeding season arrives, January through late March, the cats use their voices to send vocal messages. After breeding, the male goes off and the female is responsible for finding a safe place to have and rear her cubs. Usually two or three cubs are born to a litter. The cubs' eyes open when they are about seven days old and by three months of age the youngsters are ready to learn how to hunt for food.
What's for dinner way up there?
Snow leopards are powerful predators capable of killing prey up to two to three times their own weight. Recent radio-tracking data shows they bring down prey every 10 to 15 days. Blue sheep and ibex are their main prey, along with marmots, game birds, small rodents, and livestock. Problems arise in the winter, when marmots are hibernating and snow leopards turn to livestock for food. This brings them into conflict with herders and farmers. And as marmots are hunted for their pelts and meat or killed as pests by farmers, then snow leopards must hunt livestock more often. This creates the cycle that puts snow leopards in direct competition with people.
At the San Diego Zoo, the snow leopards are fed carnivore diet most days, large bones two times per week, and a thawed rabbit once a week.
Help for snows
Although snow leopards are listed as an endangered species, they continue to be hunted for their beautiful fur as well as for their bones, which are used in traditional Asian medicine. Cooperation between governments, conservation agencies, and the general public is essential. If the farmer and herder's quality of life can be improved through better management of grazing lands, payment for livestock losses, and improved health care and education services, then we have a chance to protect snow leopards and other wildlife in the region.
The Snow Leopard Trust, based in Seattle, Washington, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of snow leopards. They believe the cats can be helped through a balanced approach that considers the needs of local people and the environment and includes education programs, training, and support for park and reserve staff in various countries. There are now more than 100 protected areas for these cats, 36 of which are found on international borders.