Both the latinized 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 variant of lynx, lonce – the "l" of lonce was construed as an abbreviated la ('the'), leaving once to be perceived as the animal's name. This, like the English version ounce, came to be 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), "zigsa" (Tibetan), "irves" (Mongolian: ирвэс), "bars" or "barys" (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), "ilbirs" (Kyrgyz: Илбирс), "barfānī chītā" Urdu: برفانی چیتا) and "him tendua" ( 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 was proposed to have come ultimately into Greek from a Sanskrit word meaning "the yellowish animal" or "whitish-yellow". The Greek word πάνθηρ, pánthēr, referred to all spotted felines generically.
The species was first described by the German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber on the basis of an illustration in his 1777 publication Die Säugethiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen. Schreber named the cat Felis uncia and gave its type locality as Barbary, Persia, East India, and China. In 1854, the British zoologist John Edward Gray proposed the genus Uncia, to which he subordinated the snow leopard under the name Uncia irbis. British zoologist Reginald Innes Pocock corroborated this classification, but attributed the scientific name Uncia uncia. He also described morphological differences between snow leopards and the then-accepted members of Panthera.
The snow leopard is part of the Panthera lineage, one of the eight lineages of Felidae. This lineage comprises the species of Panthera and Neofelis. The Neofelis lineage diverged first from the within the Felinae (see figure). Subsequent branching between the snow leopard and clouded leopard began two to three million years ago, but the details of this are disputed. A 2006 phylogenetic study by Warren E. Johnson (of the National Cancer Institute) and colleagues, based on nDNA and mtDNA analysis, showed that the leopard is sister to two clades within Panthera - one consisting of the tiger and the snow leopard, and the other of the lion and the jaguar. This was seconded by a 2009 study by Lars Werdelin and colleagues. However, the results obtained in a 2010 study by Brian W. Davis (of the Texas A&M University) and colleagues and a 2011 study by Ji H. Mazák (of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum) and colleagues showed a swapping between the leopard and the jaguar in the cladogram. A 2016 study indicates that, at some point in their evolution, snow leopards interbred with lions, as their mitochondrial genomes are more similar to each other than their nuclear genomes. From this research, it is indicated that a female hybrid offspring of male ancestors of modern snow leopards and female ancestors of modern lions interbred with the male ancestors of modern snow leopards.
The snow leopard subspecies U. u. baikalensis-romanii was proposed for a population living in the southern Transbaikal region; this requires further evaluation. Authors of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World recognize two subspecies, namely U. u. uncia occurring in Mongolia and Russia; and U. u. uncioides living in western China and the Himalayas.
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 121 lb), with an occasional large male reaching 75 kg (165 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 150 cm (30 to 60 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 color 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 color.
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 fat storage 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 has a short muzzle and domed forehead, containing unusually large nasal cavities that help the animal breathe the thin, cold air of their mountainous environment.
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 that 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.
Snow leopards were only reclassified as a member of the Panthera genus (big cats) following a genetic study by Mr Brian Davis, Dr Gang Li and Professor William Murphy in 2009. This study showed that snow leopards actually evolved alongside tigers and not leopards as previously thought.
The snow leopard is distributed from the west of Lake Baikal through southern Siberia, in the Kunlun Mountains, in the Russian Altai mountains, Sayan and Tannu-Ola Mountains, in the Tian Shan, across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan, Karakoram in northern Pakistan, in the Pamir Mountains, and in the high altitudes of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and the Tibetan Plateau. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai Mountains and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet, it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north.
Potential snow leopard habitat in the Indian Himalayas is estimated at less than 90,000 km2 (35,000 sq mi) in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh, of which about 34,000 km2 (13,000 sq mi) is considered good habitat, and 14.4% is protected. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Indian snow leopard population was estimated at roughly 200–600 individuals living across about 25 protected areas.
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 19,700 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 rocky, 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.
Global warming has caused the tree line to be increased in altitude, resulting in the decrease of wild prey that depend on the plants for food.
The snow leopard is solitary, except for females with cubs. They rear them 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. However, a new study lasting from 2008 to 2014 indicates their ranges are much greater than believed; a male snow leopard requires a territory of around 80 square miles, while females require up to 48 square miles of territory. Taking this data into account, it is estimated that 40 percent of the 170 protected areas in place are smaller than the space required to support a single male snow leopard.
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 crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.
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 two to four times their own weight, such as the bharal, Himalayan tahr, markhor, argali, horse, and camel, 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. Snow leopards will also hunt in pairs successfully, especially mating pairs.
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 the latter 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 livestock (mainly domestic sheep) comprises 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 (11.3 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. 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 25 years.
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 various national governments from the snow leopard’s range, nonprofits, and donors from around the world 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 juxtaposed with the snow leopards' habitats.
In 2013, government leaders and officials from all 12 countries encompassing the snow leopard's range (Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) came together at the Global Snow Leopard Forum (GSLF) initiated by the President Almazbek Atambayev of the Kyrgyz Republic, and the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry under the government of the Kyrgyz Republic. The meeting was held in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, and all countries agreed that the snow leopard and the high mountain habitat it lives in need trans-boundary support to ensure a viable future for snow leopard populations, as well as to safeguard their fragile environment. The event brought together many partners, including NGOs like the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Snow Leopard Trust, and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. Also supporting the initiative were the Snow Leopard Network, the World Bank's Global Tiger Initiative, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Wild Fund for Nature, the United States Agency for International Development, and Global Environment Facility.
At the GSLF meeting, the 12 range countries signed the Bishkek Declaration to "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."
Out of these efforts was formed a cooperative support effort, the Global Snow Leopard and Eco-system Protection Program (GSLEP). The GSLEP is a joint initiative of range country governments, international agencies, civil society, and the private sector. Its goal is to secure the long-term survival of the snow leopard in its natural ecosystem.
The goal of the GSLEP is for the 12 snow leopard range countries, with support from conservation agencies, NGO’s and others to work together to identify and secure at least 20 healthy populations of snow leopards across the cat’s range by 2020, or "20 by 2020". Many of these populations will cross international boundaries.
The three criteria that will secure healthy populations of snow leopards are populations that represent at least 100 breeding age snow leopards, contain adequate and secure prey populations and have connectivity to other snow leopard populations.
This is an interim goal for the years through to 2020. During the coming years, agreement will be reached on the steps needed to achieve the ultimate goal of ensuring that healthy snow leopard populations remain the icon of the mountains of Asia for generations to come.
To help spread the word amongst the people, government authorities, and conservation groups in each range country, 2015 was designated the International Year of the Snow Leopard as part of the GSLEPP's work. All range-country governments, nongovernmental and inter-governmental organizations, local communities, and various private sector businesses pledged to take the year as an opportunity to further work towards conservation of snow leopards and their high-mountain ecosystems.
The total wild population of the snow leopard was estimated at 4,510 to 7,350 individuals. Many of these estimates are rough and outdated. An estimate from 2016, using data from a number of studies, proposed a population of 4,700 to 8,700 individuals across only 32 percent of the species' range, suggesting that the total number of snow leopards was larger than previously thought. This estimate has been disputed by other conservationists, including Gustaf Samelius and Som Ale, who have raised concerns about the scientific validity of the data used in that estimate.
In 1972, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) placed the snow leopard on its Red List of Threatened Species as 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. The Richmond Metropolitan Zoo in Virginia, in the United States of America, has snow leopard cubs born in 2016.
Protected areas:Chitral National Park, in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan
Hemis National Park, in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, India
Khunjerab National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Nanda Devi National Park, in state of Uttarakhand, India, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site
Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, Tibet, China
Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.
Tumor Feng Nature Reserve, western Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang, China.
Valley of Flowers National Park, Uttarakhand, India, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site
Shey-Phoksundo National Park, Dolpa, Nepal
Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, Baglung, Nepal
Annapurna Conservation Area, Western Nepal
Api Nampa Conservation Area, Western Nepal
Jigme Dorji National Park, Bhutan
Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, Mongolia
Ubsunur Hollow, on the territorial border of Mongolia and the Republic of Tuva, Russia
Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, near Anini, India
Aksu-Djabagly Nature Reserve, Kazakhstan
Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan
Katun Nature Reserve, Russia
Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
Pin Valley National Park, Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India
Great Himalayan National Park, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India
Sacred Himalayan Landscape, Nepal, India, Bhutan
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 snow leopards in that region.
Snow leopard attacks on humans are rare; only two instances are known. On July 12, 1940, in Maloalmaatinsk gorge near Almaty, a rabid snow leopard attacked two men during the day and inflicted serious injuries on both. In the second case, not far from Almaty, an old, toothless, emaciated snow leopard unsuccessfully attacked a passerby in winter; it was captured and carried to a local village. There are no other records of any snow leopard attacking a human being.
A 2008 Natural World episode, "Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth", interviewed a couple with a goat farm in Pakistan; the woman was bowled over by a snow leopard escaping an enclosure where it had been feeding on the livestock, but she was not attacked by the cat, despite fainting and being helpless. The film crew went to some lengths to demonstrate that the cat was primarily hunting wild prey and was often ranging far outside the area, as they hoped to prevent local farmers from shooting it. Nevertheless, they also found evidence of other sightings of the cats around nearby human settlements, and of repeated attacks on livestock (some of them unsuccessful). Predation of livestock by snow leopards has also been a subject of conservation journal papers.
Snow leopards have symbolic meaning for Turkic peoples 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 is sometimes known in English as the ounce. The cat has long been used as a political symbol, the Aq Bars ('White Leopard'), by Tatars, Kazakhs, and Bulgars, among others. A snow leopard is found on the official seal of the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, and the former 10,000 Kazakhstani tenge banknote also featured one on the reverse. A mythical winged Aq Bars is found in the national coat of arms of Tatarstan, the seal of the city of Samarqand, Uzbekistan, and (also with a crown) the old coat of arms of the Kazakh capital, Astana. In Kyrgyzstan, it has been used in highly stylized form in the modern emblem of the capital, Bishkek, and the same art has been integrated into the badge of the Kyrgyzstan Girl Scouts Association. A crowned snow leopard features in the arms of Shushensky District, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. The animal has also featured in the coat of arms of Ossetia since 1735, and has been adopted into those of modern-day North Ossetia-Alania and two entities claiming to be the legitimate government of South Ossetia.
The Snow Leopard award, given to Soviet mountaineers who scaled all five of the Soviet Union's 7,000-meter peaks, is named after the animal, but does not depict one.
The cat is the state animal of Himachal Pradesh, a north Indian state in the western Himalayas. The animal has also been declared the "National Predator" of Pakistan.
Documentary footage of the snow leopard is scarce. While such coverage would not be remarkable with regard to common species, wildlife video of the snow leopard is difficult to obtain due to the animal's rarity and the human inaccessibility of much of its natural habitat.
The BBC One TV series Planet Earth had a segment on snow leopards. The series took some of the first video of snow leopards in the wild, and also featured a snow leopard hunting a markhor.
Nisar Malik, a Pakistani journalist, and Mark Smith, a cameraman who had worked on the Planet Earth segment, spent a further 18 months filming snow leopards in the Hindu Kush for the BBC Two series Natural World episode "Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth". The cat has been featured in segments of other episodes of the same series.
The PBS/WNET series Nature focused on the species in its episode "Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard".
In Peter Matthiessen's 1978 travelogue The Snow Leopard, he recounts his two-month search with naturalist George Schaller for snow leopards in Nepal.
In Philip Pullman's 1995-2000 fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel's dæmon is a snow leopard named Stelmaria.
Tai Lung, the main antagonist of the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda, is an anthropomorphized snow leopard.
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.