Nov 062009
 
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral and South Asia
Habitat rocky crags to altitudes of 16,500 feet
Nicheambush predator
Favorite Foodsmall mammals
Lengthup to 8 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 165 pounds
StatusEndangered
Threatshabitat loss, poaching, revenge killings











Icy wind. Bitter, bone-splinting cold. Air so thin, it leaves mammals wheezing. By all accounts, one of the least-forgiving regions on planet earth, The Himalayas. And within the highest peaks on earth lives a big cat so extraordinarily adapted to its surroundings, that it has come to dominate the food chain.

The snow leopard is one of the rarest big cats in the wild. Living like a gray curtain across the rocks where it lives, it’s seldom found, even when scientists are searching for it in earnest. A solitary hunter, it generally doesn’t want to be seen. That would be giving up its greatest strength.

The snow leopard’s hunting adaptations are many. Its spine is incredibly flexible, allowing it to extend its muscles further for faster running, and swing its body around obstacles for greater maneuverability. It also sports a long, broad tail that acts as a midair rudder. The snow leopard lives in very dangerous territory. There are many clusters of sharp rocks, slippery ledges, and sheer drops. The mountains of Central Asia do not smile on a mistake in timing or careless slip during a fevered dash for prey. Men barely make it up the Himalayas with advanced hiking gear. The snow leopard not only moves in these forbidding mountains. It runs full speed.

This cat actually prefers the most treacherous areas of the mountains, steppes, and forests of Asia because of the way it hunts prey. Using stealth as its best friend, it will sneak up on potential food. Its broad, furry paws not only allow it superb handling of the rocks in the chase that will be forthcoming. The soft hair muffles nearly all the sound of the snow leopard’s approach. And this tactic works quite well. Living up to 16,000 feet above sea level, these cats will take a wide variety of prey. From animals as small as birds up to giant, formidable opponents like the yak, the snow leopard’s list of hunting quarries is long and impressive.

Then comes the strike. When the snow leopard reaches striking distance, it will release powerful muscle tension in its legs and attempt to leap on the prey. It will do this from as far as 30 feet away with extraordinary jumps. If all goes according the plan, the animal being ambushed won’t realize it has been until it feel’s the cat’s claws in its back.

Snow leopards are solitary. This is because in the cold, rocky wastes of its habitat, other animals are scarce. To make the best of the limited hunting, each hunting-age snow leopard patrols a territory up to 40 square miles. However, when the mating season advances in the Himalayas, snow leopard will come together for a brief time in order to mate and hunt together for the new generation.

photo provided courtesy of don.carey on Flickr Creative CommonsAnd snow leopards do most of this under the cover of darkness, which is one reason why they’re so difficult to study. Unfortunately, there may not be much longer to study these animals. Their numbers have been cut steadily for years, and the few remaining snow leopards remain in remote areas. Difficult for both those who want to help, and those who want to harm these endangered marvels. So, the majestic gray hunters of the mountain peaks may hold on yet a bit longer for us to ponder their future.

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