Uncia unciasnow leopard

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Geographic Range

Snow leopards inhabit a large geographic range of approximately 2.3 million square kilometers and are widely but sporadically distributed throughout the high mountain ranges of Central Asia. This includes the entire Himalayan mountain system, as well as areas in Bhutan, Nepal and the Siberian region of Russia. Snow leopards are found anywhere from the Himalayas to southern and western Mongolia and South Russia, however 60% of the range occurs in China, particularly in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions, as well as in the Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces. (Fox, 1994; Hussain, 2003; Schaller, et al., 1988)

Habitat

Steep, rocky and broken terrain are the preferred bedding areas for snow leopards, specifically on or nearby to a landform edge close to natural vegetation. Cliffs and major ridgelines are preferred for daytime resting. Snow leopards live in alpine and subalpine zones from elevations of 900 to 5,500 meters or high, but generally at altitudes between 3,000 and 4,500m. In the winter they may migrate to lower elevations of 900 m, following their preferred prey. Snow leopards generally avoid dense forest cover and cultivated fields, but are associated with open coniferous forest, as well as arid and semi-arid shrubland, grassland, alpine meadows and barren habitats. (Jackson, 1996; Lovari, et al., 2013; Schaller, et al., 1994)

  • Range elevation
    900 to 5,500 m
    2952.76 to ft

Physical Description

Measuring from nose to tail, the length of an average adult snow leopard is 1000 to 1300 mm, with a tail length of 800 to 1000 mm equaling roughly 75% to 90% of total body length. This extremely long tail is used specifically for balance in the steep and rocky terrain they inhabit, but can also be used to cover their extremities during harsh winter weather. In general, the average mass for an adult is 35 to 45 kg with a total range of 25 to 75 kg across the species. There is no pronounced sexual dimorphism in the species, however males may be slightly larger than females in general. A characteristic of snow leopards is the extremely large size of their paws in comparison to other felids, which are an adaptation for walking on snow. The front paws are slightly larger than the hind paws, with an average footpad size of 90 to 100 mm in length and 70 to 80 mm in width. Snow leopards also have relatively long hind legs that are adapted for increased agility and jumping ability in their rugged habitat. (Hemmer, 1972; Jackson, 1996; Rieger, 1984)

The base fur color can range anywhere from light gray to smoke gray to cream-yellow, with a white tint generally found on the underbody. The entire body is covered with greyish black spots and rosettes. Rosettes are larger rings encircling smaller spots and are only found on the body and tail, whereas the solid spots are found on the head, neck and lower limbs. Juvenile snow leopards have longitudinal black stripes across the middle of their back extending from the base of their head to their tail. As they grow and mature, these stripes break up into large spots forming two lateral rows of elongated rings along the center of the back. (Fox, 1989; Hemmer, 1972)

Snow leopards have long and thick coats that molts twice per year, rendering a longer and thicker coat to be present during the winter. In the summer, fur length is roughly 25 mm on the sides of the snow leopard, and roughly 50 mm on the belly and tail. In winter, fur on the sides is roughly 50 mm, 30 to 55 mm on the back, 60 mm on the tail, and up to 120 mm on the belly. In addition to thick fur they also have small rounded ears that help to minimize heat loss in their cold, mountainous environments. In comparison to other closely related felids, snow leopards have much larger nasal cavities, as well as smaller and broader heads relative to their body size. (Hemmer, 1972)

Distinguishable skull features from other large felids are: an overall shortness of the skull, an elevation of the frontal area, more rounded orbits, longer postorbital and zygomatic processes, longer and smaller infraorbital foraman, wider mesopterygoid fossa, flatter osseous bullae, and a marked shortness of palate. In males, the mean anteroposterior width of the upper canine at alveolus is slightly larger than in the females. However, the mean lateromedial width across postorbital constriction and across braincase is slightly larger in females. (Christiansen and Harris, 2012; Ognev, 1935)

The dental formula of adult snow leopards is I 3/3, C 1/1, P 3/2, M 1/1. (Marma and Yunchis, 1968; Pocock, 1916)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    25 to 75 kg
    55.07 to 165.20 lb
  • Range length
    1000 to 1300 mm
    39.37 to 51.18 in

Reproduction

Snow leopards are solitary and do not associate with mates unless it is mating season. Due to the long time spent rearing cubs, snow leopard females mate every second year. They are polygynous in the wild, but some snow leopards in captivity are known to have become monogamous. (Freeman, 1982)

Breeding in wild snow leopards is strongly seasonal, occurring during late winter from January to March. When females are in estrus, they make a continuous yowling sound that is required to attract males. There is also a significant increase in allogrooming and prusten (chuffing) by the female during this period. The female presents herself to the male by raising her tail and walking in front of him, ensuring her anal region is clearly visible. Copulation of snow leopards occurs in both ventral/dorsal and dorsal/dorsal postures, and the male generally grips the fur on the female’s neck as he is mounting her. Gestation period is roughly 90 to 105 days, and the cubs are born sometime between April and June. Generally the litter consists of 2 to 3 cubs, but in rare cases can range anywhere from 1 to 5. They are born in a rocky shelter, where the mother makes a warm nest of fur from her underbelly. At birth, snow leopard cubs weigh 300 to 600g. (Blomqvist and Sten, 1982; Fox, 1989; Freeman, 1983; Hemmer, 1972; Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

Lactation is five-months however the young can begin to eat solid food at two months of age, and are weaned at about 5 months. For roughly the first year of life, snow leopards are dependent upon their mother. Female snow leopards reach sexual maturity at about 2 to 3 years of age while males may take up to 4 years. (Fox, 1989; Petzsch, 1968)

  • Breeding interval
    Snow leopard females breed every second year.
  • Breeding season
    Snow leopards breed from January to March.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 5
  • Average number of offspring
    2
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    90 to 105 days
  • Average weaning age
    5 months
  • Average time to independence
    1 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 to 3 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 4 years

Snow leopards are solitary and the only prolonged social contact occurs while females are raising their cubs. The cubs are altricial when born, do not open their eyes until they are about one week of age, and are entirely dependent on their mother for the first year of their life. (Fox, 1989; Jackson and Ahlborn, 1989)

Reproductive success is higher in areas where females can find secluded denning as well as a large abundance and availability of prey nearby. It is imperative for the safety of their young that these denning sites are inaccessible and secure so they can hide their cubs from other carnivores while the mother searches for food. At about three months of age, the cubs begin to follow their mother in order to learn basic survival skills such as hunting. The mother is solely responsible for supplying the cubs with food, protection, resources and learning for their first year of life. (Jackson, 1996)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning

Lifespan/Longevity

Snow leopards are extremely reclusive which has made it very difficult to accurately determine the average lifespan for the species in the wild. In captivity snow leopards have lived to 21 years of age. (Wharton and Freeman, 1988)

Behavior

Snow leopards are primarily crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during dawn and dusk. They are also highly mobile and move from one location to another on a daily basis and shift their bedding site multiple times during a day. Generally, snow leopards remain in one specific area of their home range for several weeks before relocating to another part of their home range. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

Snow leopards are solitary but pair during mating season as well as share each other’s home ranges. Snow leopards that share a home range maintain a distance of roughly 2 kilometers from the nearest other individual. They actively avoid one another by marking travel lanes with scrapes, feces and pungent scent sprays, which discloses details about the sex and reproductive status of individuals. Snow leopard males are intolerant of conspecific males, suggesting that they are territorial. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988; Jackson, 1996; Lovari, et al., 2013)

Due to their large paws and elongated hind legs, the ability of snow leopards to jump is highly developed, as well as their ability to climb. They prefer to rest upon elevated structures, especially when they are kept in captivity. The rarity of sightings of snow leopards in the wild suggests that they reduce their activity around areas where humans are present. (Hemmer, 1972; Wolf and Ale, 2009)

The preferred method of hunting is to stalk and then ambush their prey from above, using rocky terrain and shrubby vegetation to conceal themselves. (Jackson, 1996)

Home Range

In western Nepal, in an area of high prey density, the average home range size for a snow leopard is 12 to 39 square kilometers. However with the large amount of topographic relief, the actual home range size is probably 20 to 30% larger. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

Communication and Perception

Unlike other large felids, snow leopards do not roar. Instead, they emit a high-pitched yowl, especially when females are in heat. This call allows females to alert males of their whereabouts and usually occurs in the late evening. Another vocalization is a nonaggressive “chuffing” that is emitted through the nostrils. The arrival of one snow leopard in the immediate proximity of another elicits this chuffing sound, and could be described as their means of greeting. (Hemmer, 1972; Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

Snow leopards emit high pitched yowling sounds to communicate and advertise their location. Their long tail is also used in a number of communication functions and can indicate their current mood to other individuals. Snow leopards also use tactile means to communicate and will rub their heads and necks against a social partner to indicate that they are being amicable. (Hemmer, 1972; Rieger, 1984)

Another way snow leopards communicate is via facial expressions. For example, when they are being defensive they open their mandible quite wide and raise their lips to bare the canine teeth, however when they are excited the mouth opens as well but the canines do not show and the lips and nose wrinkle depending on intensity. (Hemmer, 1972)

Snow leopards also communicate using scents and other chemicals. The marking behavior of snow leopards is fairly extensive and includes everything from scraping, spraying urine, head rubbing and even claw raking along the trunks of trees. Marking occurs more frequently during breeding season. They mark specific trees or surfaces in travel lanes to ensure that another snow leopard does not venture into their home area. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

Food Habits

Snow leopards are carnivorous and actively hunt their prey. They are also opportunistic predators and will take any kind of meat and prey to ensure that they meet their overall energy requirements. They are capable of killing animals more than three to four times their own weight but also readily settle for much smaller prey in times of need. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1988)

The primary prey species of snow leopards are blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur). Other prey species include ibex (Capra ibex sibrica), markhors (Capra failconeri), argali sheep (Ovis ammon), urials (Ovis orientalis), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), serows (Capricornis sumatraensis), gorals (Naemorhaedus goral), musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster), wild boars (Sus scrofa), Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonf), Tibetan gazelles (Procapra picticaudata), goitered gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa), wild donkeys (Equus hemionus), and wild yaks (Bos grunninus). Smaller prey include marmots (Marmota), hares (Lepus), pikas (Ochotona), voles (Microtus), mice and birds. (Chundawat, 1990; Fox, 1989)

Due to over-hunting by humans the population of wild ungulates in certain areas has been depleted and snow leopards have turned to prey upon domestic livestock. (Anwar, et al., 2011)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals

Predation

Snow leopards are top predators, they have few natural predators other than humans. However, interspecific killing between leopards (Panthera pardus) and snow leopards can occur when competition for resources between these sympatric carnivores increases. Adult snow leopards are also potential predators of younger cubs. (Lovari, et al., 2013)

Ecosystem Roles

Snow leopards are apex predators, meaning they play a key role in maintaining the biodiversity in an ecosystem. Through population dynamics and trophic cascades, snow leopards are an important indicator of the health of the environment and help regulate the populations of species lower on the food chain. (Shehzad, et al., 2012)

Snow leopards can also be recognized as an indicator or flagship species, and this is important because they can help motivate the general public to support the conservation of high-altitude ecosystems. If snow leopard habitats are protected, the habitats for many other species become protected as well. Top predators promote and are associated with species richness through resource facilitation, trophic cascades, ecosystem productivity, sensitivity to dysfunctions, and more. Therefore, to help maintain biodiversity, predator-centered conservation is key. (Jackson, 1996; Lovari, et al., 2009; Sergio, et al., 2008)

Snow leopard parasites include: Dirofilaria immitis, Toxascaris leonina, Notoedres cati, Toxoplasma gondii, Trichuris species, Ascaris species, Coccidia species, fleas, mites, strongyles, lungworms, Demodex species and sarcoptid mites, Giardia, and hookworms. (Geraghty, et al., 1981; Hill, et al., 2008; Murata, et al., 2003; Ruedi, et al., 1978; Wharton and Mainka, 1997)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Live snow leopards are of economic importance to zoos. They are displayed to the public for entertainment and research and bring in many tourists. The fact that snow leopards in the wild are extremely reclusive and difficult to find makes this even more important. (Macri and Patterson-Kane, 2011)

  • Positive Impacts
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism
  • research and education
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Due to their shy and elusive behavior, snow leopards generally avoid humans and are not known to have ever attacked a human in the wild. The only major negative impact of snow leopards on humans is their predation upon domestic livestock. (Hussain, 2003)

Conservation Status

Snow leopards are listed as an endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The global population of snow leopards is estimated to be anywhere between 4,080 to 6,590 individuals. In the past two decades, populations of snow leopards are suspected to have declined by at least 20% due to habitat loss, prey loss, poaching and persecution. The main factor affecting the population decline of the snow leopard is human activity. Whether the cats are impacted directly by poaching for fur, bones and other body parts, they are also being affected indirectly by base prey loss due to human overhunting. Snow leopard pelts appear to be the main product demand for poachers, but recently their bones have become a popular substitute for tiger bones in Chinese medicine. Many farmers are also responsible for illegally killing snow leopards as a response to predation upon their livestock. (Jackson and Ahlborn, 1984; Jackson, et al., 2008; Lovari, et al., 2009)

Through habitat shifts, loss, and fragmentation, climate change is now emerging as another threat to this space-requiring species. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the average annual temperature in South Asia and Tibet will increase by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius by 2080 to 2099, along with an annual increase in precipitation. Due to these warmer and wetter conditions, the forest treeline is expected to ascend into alpine areas, which is the snow leopards preferred habitat. Results indicate that roughly 30% of their habitat in the Himalaya may be lost because of this shifting treeline. This will cause overlap in species range, where the snow leopard will then have to contend for resources with species better adapted to forest habitats such as leopards (Panthera pardus), wild dogs (Cuon alpinus) and, in Bhutan, tigers (Panthera tigris). (Christensen, et al., 2007; Forrest, et al., 2012)

Anthropogenic threats to snow leopards may also intensify through climate change. With shrinking and fragmented alpine habitat, snow leopard prey species are being displaced and causing snow leopards to increase predation upon livestock. This results in increased retaliatory killing by local farmers, placing snow leopards at great risk. (Forrest, et al., 2012)

There is a general lack of awareness across the globe on the importance of this species to its ecosystem. The Snow Leopard Network has developed a plan uniting individuals and organizations such as the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the International Snow Leopard Trust to try and educate the public on the importance of conservation of snow leopards. (Jackson, et al., 2008)

Other Comments

There are two other scientific names that have been used for snow leopards: Felis uncia and Panthera uncia. (Jackson, et al., 2008)

Contributors

Leah Montsion (author), University of Manitoba, Jane Waterman (editor), University of Manitoba, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

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