Featured Creature: Snow Leopard

Which creature has an invisibility cloak, built-in snowshoes, and an important role in Central Asia’s mountainous ecosystems?

Snow leopards!

Mountain climber

Snow leopards live throughout 12 countries in Central Asia, from China to Russia. The mountain ranges they inhabit are typically cold, dry, and arid. In the summer, these mountains are mostly yellow-brown, so snow leopards sport a yellowish gray coat that blends them in with the background. In the winter, their spotted coats become off-white, matching the abundance of snow in these high elevations. These camouflage superpowers earned them the nickname “ghost of the mountains.”

Apart from changing colors, the coat also alters in density. In the winter, the coat becomes extra thick to maintain warmth. Another way these felines stay warm is by wrapping their extra long tail, that’s 3 ft long, around their bodies – just like a blanket! Their tails also help them maintain their balance, which is something necessary for survival at such high altitudes.

To navigate the rugged terrain, snow leopards use another unique adaptation: built-in snowshoes. Their paws are really large relative to their size, and this prevents them from sinking into the snow. Thanks to strong and slightly longer hind limbs, snow leopards can leap themselves up to 12 m (or 40 ft) in one leap! 

The downside of mountain living is the lack of oxygen. However, snow leopards have an answer to this problem. Their large chest cavity allows them to inhale as much air as possible, ensuring they get whatever oxygen is available. Of course, no one wants to breathe in a bunch of cold air, so yet again, snow leopards have an answer. Their wide nose warms what they inhale before it reaches the lungs. Another trait that helps them stay warm is their short ears, which help reduce loss of heat. In other words, they were built for these mountains.

Photo: The Conversation

Pop Quiz: Want to see that camouflage put to the test? See if you can find the two snow leopards in the picture below (answers are at the bottom of this email).

Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Learning to leopard

After enjoying a cozy nursery in a cave filled with mom’s fur for extra warmth, snow leopard cubs need to grow up fast so they can survive in such a harsh environment. At 2 months old, they begin to eat solid food. One month later, they start to mimic mom and learn how to hunt. Before they turn two years old, cubs leave their moms to find a territory of their own. Imagine if we were expected to find a job and buy a house at 18 months old!

Once these felines set out on their own, they’re alone. Snow leopards live solitary lives with only two exceptions: mating and raising cubs. To avoid other snow leopards, they mark their territories by scraping the ground with their hind legs or by urinating on a rock. When you have to kill a prey animal every 8-10 days to stay alive, you need to ensure you have sufficient territory to hunt. Territory sizes vary depending on how much prey is available, but they can be as large as over 1,000 km (about 620 miles) if prey is scarce. No wonder they’re so adamant about their territory markings.

Resilient but threatened

Unfortunately, territory markings aren’t enough to keep humans away. Snow leopards are protected in some parts of Central Asia, but where they aren’t, hunters and poachers who desire their coats for profit pose a severe threat. Like other predators, snow leopards are disliked by ranchers trying to protect their livestock. Ironically, people also hunt snow leopards’ prey, forcing the felines to search for other sources of food.

Other threats include commercial development and global warming. Snow leopards prefer high altitudes with plenty of snow and minimal plants so they can more easily scour for prey. With warming temperatures, less snow will be available and plants that previously couldn’t survive at those altitudes will soon be able to – leading to habitat loss. Although globally we want more plants and trees for their contributions to the water and carbon cycles, not all animals are meant to live in forests. 

And the moment you have all been waiting for… here are the answers to the camouflage pop quiz:

Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Did you pass the quiz?

With mountains of appreciation,