Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard, Panthera uncia

You can see a few of the adaptations of the snow leopard to its environment in just its face. Firstly, the density of the fur should be obvious. This is one floofy cat. The ears are small, rounded and tucked close to the head, to minimise radiative heat-loss from those extremities. You can also see, clearly, the large nasal openings, huge nostrils, effectively big air intakes for their low-oxygen environment. (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Like of lichen or moss-born, the cliff clung
ghost in the Mountain’s dense cloud
growled, and padded – silent proud.  
Waiting, a stretched and latent, snow-soft
blade is glacially patient to bait its prey.
Gravity shamed, she phases through clay.

Sorry, it might be quite off-putting for some of you for me to start with a poem but frankly, introducing the snow leopard with anything like irreverence is like introducing the person who cures cancer with a farted Trumpet Voluntary.

The snow leopard is one of the most enigmatic cats on the planet. I’d argue that until very recently we knew more about the role of ice in Martian geology than we did of the behaviour of the snow leopard in the wild.

Why are they so enigmatic? Because they’re practically invisible in their natural habitat, which is also barely inhabitable for humans, there are only a few thousand of them (estimated 7,000-10,000 adults and declining) and they have exceptionally large territories and ranges relative to that habitat. They are the proverbial needle, and the haystack in this case is effectively every mountain range in Asia, from Russian down to the Himalayas.

A perfect example of the camouflage of the snow leopard, in Ladakh, India. Even against the lichen-covered colourful rocks, the cat blends effortlessly. It’s pelt somewhere between rock and snow on colour and broken by the stripes, rosettes and spots. (Credit: Tashi Lonchay CC-BY-SA 4.0)

They have remarkably dense fur, like huggable-grade, around 15,000 hairs per cm² and those hairs are between 5 and 12 cm long. This is some high-grade floof! They have a stocky build, a necessary adaptation to their environment. A large chest (combined with larger than average nasal openings) allow them to take in lots more of that oxygen-scarce mountain air. They have squat, powerful front legs and shoulders, and longer back legs for springing, allowing them the perfect form for hunting their way down mountainsides. The strong shoulders and big chest acting as a shock-absorber on a quick descent, especially when combined with their large, fluffy, padded paws – not only great for mountainside hunting but perfect to act as snow-shoes when walking in thick blankets of freshly fallen snow.

They stand around 50-60cm at the shoulder, but can grow close to 2.5-3m in length (around 7-9 feet) including their tail, but that tail – ooh what a tail – is around 90% the length of their body. So, nose to tail base, around 150cm, with another 1m of tail.

The incredible, thick, fluffy tail of the snow leopard is one of its greatest adaptations. A muscular, writhing counterbalance on its vertiginous hunts, a fat store for lean times, and a scarf to keep warm and at up to 90% the length of the cat’s body, one of the longest tail-to-body sizes of any cat. (Credit: Eric Kilby CC-BY-SA 2.0)

That tail itself is no mean feat of evolution. For one thing it is thick (or ‘T H I C C’ if you prefer), not only is it used almost exactly like a cheetah tail, for the balancing and quick-swivel movements, but it also acts as a fat store for lean times. Not only that, it’s also very fluffy, so they often wrap them around themselves when they rest or sleep in the cold, sometimes even wearing their tail over their face like a snood or a scarf.

Now, if you’re an internet cat-lover (and if you’re here you probably are) you may have seen many images of snow leopards biting their tails, or carrying their tails in their mouths. There are some hypothesised reasons for this, including instinctive behaviour for keeping their faces warm (although that then doesn’t explain why they do it in captivity in temperate climates) through to simple play behaviour. The heartbreaking theory is that for most of their lives, excluding infancy and breeding, snow leopards are pretty much completely solitary. During their infancy, one of the few toys the environment of barren rock and harsh snow gives them is their mother’s warm, fluffy tail. Therefore, tissues at the ready, snow leopards bite their tails because they miss their mums!

KITTEN TAX! And tail biting tax! Here we see a snow leopard cub biting its mother’s tail. Whether there is any truth that they carry this behaviour through to adulthood because they miss their mums is purely speculation for the sentimental! (Credit: andreas richter Used without Permission)

It’s probably not true, but how heartbreaking would that be if it was! These fluffy-tailed cat-ghosts just nibble their own tails as a reminder of the comfort of having their mothers around.

Action shot! Going in for the monch! (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

One interesting aspect of feline behaviour, particularly available to see in snow-leopards, is the spatio-temporal nature of cat territories. Spatio-temporal basically means they exist in both time and space, they don’t merely ‘own’ a specific ‘area’, rather they leave scent markings and indications that suggest what times they will be in that area as a message to other cats and arrange their territories accordingly. It’s sort of like a time-share agreement, like a holiday let but for cat territory.

Now since this is me we don’t get to escape talking about the beast without talking about the beastly. This thing is mostly an ambush killer, it will sneak up on prey from above and then, in moves that would make a vertigo sufferer like myself weak at the knees just thinking about, cascades down the mountain side in huge leaps chasing their prey. They mainly eat mountain goat and wild sheep species, but it varies across their habitat range. Himalayan blue sheep, Siberian ibex, wild goat are all preferred prey, they have also been known to eat smaller species like pika or marmot and they are not against scavenging a bit of carrion.

From BBCs Planet Earth Series – Remarkably one of the first times the snow leopard had been captured on film so intimately in the wild. If you watch the Planet Earth series and see the efforts the camera crew go to in order to find the cats it is unbelievable. If I remember rightly, tears were shed! (Credit: BBC)

Further incursions of domestic livestock into their ranges have led to conflict with humans, causing conflict. Herders will kill snow leopards to protect their livestock even though we know even in areas with scarce wild prey human livestock will only account for about 20% of the snow leopard diet.

This is the biggest threat to the snow leopard – Increased incursion of human activity, increased exploitation of their natural habitat for human livestock causing loss of their prey species and driving conflict between the cats and the farmers. Hence, they are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, and numbers are only estimated to drop further.

Get ready – here’s the human bashing – we really are pieces of shit. Thankfully many nations with snow leopards and many projects aimed at their conservation are focussing their efforts on ensuring a respectful relationship between human land users and their wild inhabitants. Especially as far as eco-tourism goes, the Himalayas is already a hotspot and, if I lost two sheep a year to cats that were bringing two guests a week to my AirBnB in the mountains, I wouldn’t be particularly fussed.

There is so much value to be had for allowing our natural world to exist around us, not just monetarily but psychologically, ethically and environmentally, that projects to assist local communities establish sustainable eco and/or wildlife tourism schemes are fundamental to our preservation of our natural world.

Finally, before we quit, can we just give a huge shout-out to the dearly departed Marta. She was the resident snow leopard at my local zoo, Port Lympne and for many years was one of few that I saw who looked truly contented with her life. Port Lympne’s keepers work hard to work with the animals in as enriching a manner as possible, though the main charity – The Aspinall Foundation – seem to be making some missteps in their conservation efforts.

Muni and Marta – once a pair of snow leopards, after the death of Muni Marta was left on her own. She was always a highlight of visits to Port Lympne and is sorely missed. Although they now have a new pair of snow leopards, Ziva and Nuri, who you can find out about here (Credit: Alaina Macri via Saving Snow Leopards – Used without permission)

Marta used to be on one of the first enclosures as you go down the big hill into the main section of the park. Very often she would be the first cat you would see (unless you went to the lions and tigers just the other side of the entrance first!) and one of the last stops before returning to the car or bus stop. She was a beautiful, happy, playful cat and an excellent ambassador for her species. I must have spent hours just watching her rest and sleep, so, Marta, thank you for showing me the majesty of the snow leopard up close and may you rest in purrs.

The elegant Marta – Always sad to see a cat behind a cage but I can assure you I have seldom seen a cat so comfortable. Marta would jump, she would play, a lot of the time she would do as cats do and sleep, and sometimes she used to sit like this and watch the visitors going by. It was almost as if she was watching you. An incredible cat, much missed. (Credit: either me or me mum)

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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