Both the Latin name uncia and the English word ounce are derived from the Old Frenchonce, which was also used for the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Once is thought to have evolved from an earlier variant of lynx by false splitting; lonce was interpreted as l'once, in which l' is the elided form of the French definite article la ('the'), leaving once to be perceived as the animal's name.
The word panther derives from the classical Latinpanthēra, itself from the ancient Greek πάνθηρ pánthēr, which was used for spotted cats.
Uncia uncia was used by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1930 when he reviewed skins and skulls of Pantheraspecies from Asia. He also described morphological differences between snow leopard and leopard skins.Panthera baikalensis-romanii proposed by a Russian scientist in 2000 was a dark brown snow leopard skin from the Petrovsk-Zabaykalsky District in southern Transbaikal.
The snow leopard's fur is whitish to grey with black spots on head and neck, with larger rosettes on the back, flanks and bushy tail. The belly is whitish. Its eyes are pale green or grey in color. Its muzzle is short and its forehead domed. Its nasal cavities are large. The fur is thick with hairs between 5 and 12 cm (2.0 and 4.7 in) long. Its body is stocky, short-legged, and slightly smaller than the other cats of the genus Panthera, reaching a shoulder height of 56 cm (22 in), and ranging in head to body size from 75 to 150 cm (30 to 59 in). Its tail is 80 to 105 cm (31 to 41 in) long.
It weighs between 22 and 55 kg (49 and 121 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (165 lb), and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb).
Its canine teeth are 28.6 mm (1.13 in) long and are more slender than those of the other Panthera species.
In relation to the length of its skull and width of its palate, it has large nasal openings, which allow for increasing the volume of air inhaled with each breath, and at the same time for warming and humidifying cold dry air. It is not especially adapted to high-altitude hypoxia.
The snow leopard shows several adaptations for living in a cold, mountainous environment. Its small rounded ears help to minimize heat loss. Its broad paws well distribute the body weight for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase the grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Its long and flexible tail helps to maintain balance in the rocky terrain. The tail is very thick due to fat storage, and is covered in a thick layer of fur, which allows the cat to use it like a blanket to protect its face when asleep.
The snow leopard differs from the other Panthera species by a shorter muzzle, an elevated forehead, a vertical chin and a less developed posterior process of the lower jaw. It cannot roar despite its partly ossifiedhyoid bone, as its 9 mm (0.35 in) short vocal folds provide little resistance to airflow.
In summer, the snow leopard usually lives above the tree line on alpine meadows and in rocky regions at elevations from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 19,700 ft). In winter, it descends to elevations around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). It prefers rocky, broken terrain, and can move in 85 cm (33 in) deep snow, but prefers to use existing trails made by other animals.
The snow leopard's vocalizations include meowing, grunting, prusten and moaning. It can purr when exhaling.
It is solitary and active mostly at dawn until early morning, and again in afternoons and early evenings. It mostly rests near cliffs and ridges that provide vantage points and shade. In Nepal's Shey Phoksundo National Park, the home ranges of five adult radio-collared snow leopards overlapped largely, though they rarely met. Their individual home ranges ranged in size from 12 to 39 km2 (4.6 to 15.1 sq mi). Males moved between 0.5 and 5.45 km (0.31 and 3.39 mi) per day, and females between 0.2 and 2.25 km (0.12 and 1.40 mi), measured in straight lines between survey points. Since they often zigzagged in the precipitous terrain, they actually moved up to 7 km (4.3 mi) in a single night.
Up to 10 individuals inhabit an area of 100 km2 (40 sq mi); in habitats with sparse prey, an area of 1,000 km2 (400 sq mi) supports only five individuals.
A study in the Gobi Desert lasting from 2008 to 2014 revealed that adult male snow leopards used a mean home range of 144–270 km2 (56–104 sq mi), while adult females ranged in areas of 83–165 km2 (32–64 sq mi). Their home ranges overlapped less than 20%. These results indicate that about 40% of the 170 protected areas in snow leopard range countries are smaller than the home range of a single male snow leopard.
Snow leopards leave scent marks to indicate their territories and common travel routes. They scrape the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or feces, but also spray urine onto rocks. Their urine contains many characteristic low molecular weight compounds with diverse functional groups including pentanol, hexanol, heptanol, 3-octanone, nonanal and indole, which possibly play a role in chemical communication.
Snow leopards actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 m (980 ft). They drag the prey to a safe location and consume all edible parts of the carcass. They can survive on a single Himalayan blue sheep for two weeks before hunting again, and one adult individual apparently needs 20–30 adult blue sheep per year. Snow leopards have been recorded to hunt successfully in pairs, especially mating pairs.
The snow leopard is capable of killing most animals in its range, with the probable exception of the adult male yak. It also eats a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs. It has not been reported to attack humans, is easily driven away from livestock and readily abandons kills, often without defending itself.
Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years in the wild. In captivity they can live for up to 25 years. Oestrus typically lasts from five to eight days, and males tend not to seek out another partner after mating, probably because the short mating season does not allow sufficient time. Paired snow leopards mate in the usual felid posture, from 12 to 36 times a day. They are unusual among large cats in that they have a well-defined birth peak. They usually mate in late winter, marked by a noticeable increase in marking and calling. Females have a gestation period of 90–100 days, and the cubs are born between April and June.
A litter usually consists of two to three cubs, in exceptional cases there can be up to seven.
The female gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 567 g (11.3 to 20.0 oz). Their eyes open at around seven days, and the cubs can walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by 10 weeks. The cubs leave the den when they are around two to four months of age. Three radio-collared snow leopards in Mongolia's Tost Mountains gave birth between late April and late June. Two female cubs started to part from their mothers at the age of 20 to 21 months, but reunited with them several times for a few days over a period of 4–7 months. One male cub separated from its mother at the age of about 22 months, but stayed in her vicinity for a month and moved out of his natal range at 23 months of age.
The major threat to snow leopard populations is poaching and illegal trade of skins and body parts. Between 1999 and 2002, three live snow leopard cubs and 16 skins were confiscated, 330 traps were destroyed and 110 poachers were arrested in Kyrgyzstan. Undercover operations in the country revealed an illegal trade network with links to Russia and China via Kazakhstan. The major skin trade center in the region is the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang. In Tibet and Mongolia, skins are used for traditional dresses, and meat in traditional Tibetan medicine to cure kidney problems; bones are used in traditional Chinese and Mongolian medicine for treating rheumatism, injuries and pain of human bones and tendons. Between 1996 and 2002, 37 skins were found in wildlife markets and tourist shops in Mongolia. Between 2003 and 2016, 710 skins were traded, of which 288 skins were confiscated. In China, 103 to 236 animals are poached every year, in Mongolia between 34 and 53, in Pakistan between 23 and 53, in India from 21 to 45, and in Tajikistan 20 to 25. In 2016, a survey of Chinese websites revealed 15 advertisements for 44 snow leopard products; the dealers offered skins, canine teeth, claws and a tongue. Nine snow leopard skins were found during a market survey in September 2014 in Afghanistan.
Where snow leopards prey on domestic livestock, they are subject to conflict with humans.
The loss of natural prey due to overgrazing by livestock, poaching, and defense of livestock are the major drivers for the decreasing population of the snow leopard. Livestock also cause habitat degradation, which, alongside the increasing use of forests for fuel, reduces snow leopard habitat.
The snow leopard is listed in CITES Appendix I. It has been listed as threatened with extinction in Schedule I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals since 1985.
Hunting snow leopards has been prohibited in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. In India, the snow leopard is granted the highest level of protection under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and hunting is sentenced with imprisonment of 3–7 years. In Nepal, it has been legally protected since 1973, with penalties of 5–15 years in prison and a fine for poaching and trading it.
Since 1978, it has been listed in the Soviet Union’s Red Book and is still inscribed today in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation as threatened with extinction. Hunting snow leopards is only permitted for the purposes of conservation and monitoring, and to eliminate a threat to the life of humans and livestock. Smuggling of snow leopard body parts is punished with imprisonment and a fine.
Hunting snow leopards has been prohibited in Afghanistan since 1986.
In China, it has been protected by law since 1989; hunting and trading snow leopards or their body parts constitute a criminal offence that is punishable by the confiscation of property, a fine and a sentence of at least 10 years in prison.
It has been protected in Bhutan since 1995.
At the end of 2020, 35 cameras were installed on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan in hopes to catch footage of snow leopards. In November 2021, it was announced by the Russian World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that snow leopards were spotted 65 times on these cameras in the Trans-Ili Alatau mountains since the cameras were installed.
At the GSLF meeting, the 12 range countries signed the Bishkek Declaration, which stated: "[We] acknowledge that the snow leopard is an irreplaceable symbol of our nations' natural and cultural heritage and an indicator of the health and sustainability of mountain ecosystems; and we recognize that mountain ecosystems inhabited by snow leopards provide essential ecosystem services, including storing and releasing water from the origins of river systems benefitting one-third of the world’s human population; sustaining the pastoral and agricultural livelihoods of local communities which depend on biodiversity for food, fuel, fodder, and medicine; and offering inspiration, recreation, and economic opportunities."
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