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The snow leopard (Panthera uncia or Uncia uncia) is a moderately large cat native to the mountain ranges of Central Asia. The classification of this species has been subject to change, and as of 2000, it is still classified as Uncia uncia by MSW3. and CITES Appendix I. However, with more recent genetic studies, the snow leopard is now generally considered as Panthera uncia and classified as such by IUCN. Classically, two subspecies have been attributed, but genetic differences between the two have not been settled. The snow leopard is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as globally Endangered (EN).
Snow leopards occupy alpine and subalpine areas generally 3,350 to 6,700 metres (10,990 to 22,000 ft) above sea level in Central Asia. McCarthy and Chapron (2003) compiled national snow leopard population estimates, updating the work of Fox (1994). Many of the estimates are acknowledged to be rough and out of date, but the total estimated population is 4,150–7,350. However, the global snow leopard effective population size (those likely to reproduce) is suspected to be fewer than 2,500 (50% of the total population, or 2,040–3,295).
Snow leopards are slightly smaller than the other big cats but, like them, exhibit a range of sizes, generally weighing between 27 and 55 kg (60 and 120 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (170 lb) and small female of under 25 kg (55 lb). They have a relatively short body, measuring in length from the head to the base of the tail 75 to 130 cm (30 to 50 in). However, the tail is quite long, at 80 to 100 cm (31 to 39 in), with only the domestic-cat-sized marbled cat being relatively longer-tailed. They are stocky and short-legged big cats, standing about 60 cm (24 in) at the shoulder.
Snow leopards have long, thick fur, and their base colour varies from smoky gray to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their bodies, with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tails. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or grey in colour.
Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold, mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Snow leopards' tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due to storage of fat and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.
The snow leopard cannot roar, despite possessing partial ossification of the hyoid bone. This partial ossification was previously thought to be essential for allowing the big cats to roar, but new studies show the ability to roar is due to other morphological features, especially of the larynx, which are absent in the snow leopard. Snow leopard vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls, and wailing.
Both the Latinised genus name, Uncia, and the occasional English name "ounce" are derived from the Old French once, originally used for the European lynx. "Once" itself is believed to have arisen by back-formation from an earlier word "lonce" – the "L" of "lonce" was construed as an abbreviated "le" ("the"), leaving "once" to be perceived as the animal's name. This, like the English version "ounce", became used for other lynx-sized cats, and eventually for the snow leopard.
The snow leopard is also known in its native lands as wāwrīn pṛāng (Pashto: واورين پړانګ), shan (Ladakhi), irves (Mongolian: ирвэс), bars or barys (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), ilbirs (Kyrgyz: Илбирс ), barfānī chītā (Urdu: برفانی چیتا) and him tendua (Sanskrit, Hindi: हिम तेन्दुआ).
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the origin of the word panthera is unknown. A folk etymology derives the word from the Greek πάν pan- ("all") and thēr ("beast of prey") because they can hunt and kill almost anything. It has also been proposed that it comes ultimately into Greek from a Sanskrit word meaning "the yellowish animal" or "whitish-yellow". The Greek word πάνθηρ, pánthēr, referred to all spotted Felidae generically.
In the past, many taxonomists included the snow leopard in the genus Panthera, together with the other largest extant felids, but later it was placed in its own genus, Uncia. It was thought not to be closely related to the Panthera or other extant big cats. However, recent molecular studies place the species firmly within the genus Panthera, its closest relative being the tiger (Panthera tigris). MSW3 still refers to the snow leopard as Uncia uncia, but the more recent IUCN classifies it as Panthera uncia. The Cat Classification Task Force, with the goal to propose on behalf of the Cat Specialist Group and the IUCN Red List Unit, and based on the best science and expert knowledge presently available, is currently working on an updated and practical classification of the Felidae, including genera, species and subspecies with the most likely distribution ranges of the respective taxa.
A few subspecies have been proposed for animals living in different geographical regions. With the possible exception of U. u. baikalensis-romanii, which requires further evaluation, these subspecies were generally not considered valid. The Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognizes two subspecies: U. u. uncia, from central Asia north-eastwards to Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides in western China and the Himalayas.
In summer, snow leopards usually live above the tree line on mountainous meadows and in rocky regions at altitudes from 2,700 to 6,000 m (8,900 to 20,000 ft). In winter, they come down into the forests to altitudes around 1,200 to 2,000 m (3,900 to 6,600 ft). Snow leopards prefer broken terrain, and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85 cm (33 in) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals.
The snow leopard leads a largely solitary life, although mothers may rear cubs in dens in the mountains for extended periods.
An individual snow leopard lives within a well-defined home range, but does not defend its territory aggressively when encroached upon by other snow leopards. Home ranges vary greatly in size. In Nepal, where prey is abundant, a home range may be as small as 12 km2 (5 sq mi) to 40 km2 (15 sq mi) and up to five to 10 animals are found here per 100 km2 (39 sq mi); in habitats with sparse prey, though, an area of 1,000 km2 (386 sq mi) supports only five of these cats.
Like other cats, snow leopards use scent marks to indicate their territories and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock.
Snow leopards are carnivores and actively hunt their prey. Like many cats, they are also opportunistic feeders, eating whatever meat they can find, including carrion and domestic livestock. They can kill animals more than three to four times their own weight, such as the bharal, Himalayan tahr, markhor and argali, but will readily take much smaller prey, such as hares and birds. They are capable of killing most animals in their range with the probable exception of the adult male yak. Unusually among cats, snow leopards also eat a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs.
The diet of the snow leopard varies across its range and with the time of year, and depends on prey availability. In the Himalayas, it preys mostly on bharals (Himalayan blue sheep), but in other mountain ranges, such as the Karakoram, Tian Shan, Altai and Tost Mountains of Mongolia, its main prey consists of Siberian ibex and argali, a type of wild sheep, although this has become rarer in some parts of the snow leopard's range. Other large animals eaten when available can include various types of wild goats and sheep (such as markhors and urials), other goat-like ruminants such as Himalayan tahr and gorals, plus deer, red panda, wild boars, and langur monkeys. Smaller prey consists of marmots, woolly hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as the snow cock and chukar.
Considerable predation of domestic livestock occurs, which brings it into direct conflict with humans. However, even in Mongolia, where wild prey have been reduced and interactions with humans are common, domestic stock (mainly domestic sheep) comprise less than 20% of the diet of species, with wild prey being taken whenever possible. Herders will kill snow leopards to prevent them from taking their animals. The loss of prey animals due to overgrazing by domestic livestock, poaching, and defense of livestock are the major drivers for the decreasing population of the snow leopard. The snow leopard has not been reported to attack humans, and appears to be the least aggressive to humans of all big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened, and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Snow leopards prefer to ambush prey from above, using broken terrain to conceal their approach. They will actively pursue prey down steep mountainsides, using the momentum of their initial leap to chase animals for up to 300 m (980 ft). They kill with a bite to the neck, and may drag the prey to a safe location before feeding. They consume all edible parts of the carcass, and can survive on a single bharal for two weeks before hunting again. Annual prey needs appears to be 20–30 adult blue sheep.
Snow leopards 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. Snow leopards have a gestation period of 90–100 days, so the cubs are born between April and June. 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.
The mother gives birth in a rocky den or crevice lined with fur shed from her underside. Litter sizes vary from one to five cubs, but the average is 2.2. The cubs are blind and helpless at birth, although already with a thick coat of fur, and weigh from 320 to 567 g (11 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. Also when they are born, they have full black spots which turn into rosettes as they grow to adolescence.
The cubs leave the den when they are around two to four months of age, but remain with their mother until they become independent after around 18–22 months. Once independent, they may disperse over considerable distances, even crossing wide expanses of flat terrain to seek out new hunting grounds. This likely helps reduce the inbreeding that would otherwise be common in their relatively isolated environments. Snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years, and normally live for 15–18 years, although in captivity they can live for up to 21 years.
Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the mountains of Pamir Mountains, Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kashmir, Kunlun, and the Himalaya to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, Sayan, Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet, it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
Numerous agencies are working to conserve the snow leopard and its threatened mountain ecosystems. These include the Snow Leopard Trust, the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Network, the Cat Specialist Group and the Panthera Corporation. These groups and numerous national governments from the snow leopard’s range, nonprofits and donors from around the world recently worked together at the 10th International Snow Leopard Conference in Beijing. Their focus on research, community programs in snow leopard regions, and education programs are aimed at understanding the cat's needs, as well as the needs of the villagers and herder communities affecting snow leopards' lives and habitat.
In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snow leopard on its Red List of Threatened Species as globally "Endangered"; the same threat category was applied in the assessment conducted in 2008.
There are also approximately 600 snow leopards in zoos around the world.
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Much progress has been made in securing the survival of the snow leopard, with them being successfully bred in captivity. The animals usually give birth to two to three cubs in a litter, but can give birth to up to seven in some cases.
A "surprisingly healthy" population of snow leopards has been found living at 16 locations in the isolated Wakhan Corridor in northeastern Afghanistan, giving rise to hopes for survival of wild snow leopards in that region.
The first documentary on snow leopards was made by Hugh Miles, named Silent Roar – In Search of the Snow Leopard.
Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, and cameraman Mark Smith (who had worked on the Planet Earth segment) spent a further 18 months filming snow leopards in the Hindu Kush for the BBC film Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth.
In the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, photojournalist Sean O'Connell (played by Sean Penn) is shown photographing snow leopards in Afghanistan.
Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for Turkic people of Central Asia, where the animal is known as irbis or bars, so it is widely used in heraldry and as an emblem.
The snow leopard (in heraldry known as the ounce) (Aq Bars) is a national symbol for Tatars and Kazakhs: a snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, and a winged snow leopard is found on Tatarstan's coat of arms. A similar leopard is featured on the coat of arms of North Ossetia-Alania. The Snow Leopard award was given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7000-meter peaks. In addition, the snow leopard is the symbol of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan.
Membership badge of the Girl Scout Association of Kyrgyzstan
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