A Year in the Life
Even in the high mountains of Central Asia, the changing seasons dictate the rhythm of life.
In the high mountain environments where snow leopards live, summer buzzes with life. The wildlife that makes a home in this harsh environment are busy raising their young and feasting on the foods that are available during this brief but intense season, storing up for the lean months ahead.
Wild sheep and goat species that are the snow leopard’s primary large prey move up the steep slopes during the summer to feed on mountain grasses, and snow leopards follow.
The snow leopard’s hunting behavior makes clear how well the cat is adapted to its habitat. Its powerfully built, barrel-shaped chest gives it the strength to climb the steep slopes. Its long, muscular hind legs enable it to leap up to 30 feet—nearly six times its body length—in pursuit of prey.
The long tail that served as a muffler to keep the snow leopard warm during the winter reveals another purpose here, helping the cat keep its balance as it leaps among rocky outcrops and narrow ledges after its agile prey. The cat’s pale coat with dark-gray to black spots also aids in hunting, helping to camouflage the cat against the rocky slopes.
By the end of the summer, cubs that were born this year will be venturing out of the protective den where they were born, and testing out their balance as they begin to follow their mother when she hunts.
Cubs born last year will probably continue to stay with their mother until she breeds in December or January, or even until she gives birth next spring. The yearlings may look nearly full-grown now, but they have a lot of learning yet to do before they strike off on their own.
During the fall months in most high altitude regions of Central Asia, the snows are beginning to arrive. The snow leopard’s thick winter coat, which will keep the cat warm through the freezing months ahead, is growing in.
The herds of wild sheep and goats that form a major part of the snow leopard’s diet are preparing for winter too, moving to lower elevations in search of forage and better shelter.
The snow leopard follows its prey down the steep mountain slopes, moving along with the herds of ibex, bharal (blue sheep), markhor, urial, argali, and other grazers.
Snow leopards are opportunistic predators, and as snows cover the landscape and prey becomes harder to find, they may hunt many types of animals to survive. Their diets vary from place to place across their vast range, but may include small mammals such as rabbit, hare, marmot, and pika, and birds such as pheasant, partridge, and snowcock.
Snow leopards have also been known to hunt domestic livestock from nearby herding communities.
Scientists have also found that snow leopards may eat substantial quantities of grass, twigs, and other vegetation—something that is common among cats, but it seems that snow leopards eat more plant material than their feline kin.
The vegetation may serve as a source of extra vitamins, aid in digestion, or help the cats eliminate parasites—no one knows for sure.
In addition to feeding herself, a mother snow leopard must hunt to feed her growing cubs. If she gave birth this year, her cubs are eating solid foods, and have begun to explore the world outside the den, following their mother along rocky crevasses and cliffs to reach a kill.
Cubs born last year are learning to hunt and getting ready to live on their own.
Winter means deep snow throughout the mountains of Central Asia where wild snow leopards live.
The harsh winter weather makes clear how well the snow leopard is adapted to its environment. Its thick fur grows longer in the winter—up to 12 centimeters (nearly 5 inches) long on its belly. Its large, broad paws act like snowshoes, helping the cat walk on top of the drifts of snow, and long fur between its toes helps protect its feet from frostbite. The snow leopard even has a built-in scarf, its long, bushy tail that it often wraps around its body and face for added warmth when resting.
Despite these advantages, winter is a hard time for snow leopards. Human-snow leopard conflicts often increase in the winter, as the cats follow the herds of their wild prey down to lower altitudes where they are also more likely to come in contact with humans.
Food is scarce, and hungry snow leopards occasionally kill and eat domestic livestock, increasing the possibility of retribution killings by herders.
Although snow leopards are solitary, they have overlapping home ranges, which helps males and females find each other during the mating season from January to March. A female will sometimes climb to the top of a peak or ridgeline and make long, wailing calls to let males in the area know she is ready to mate.
The cats also communicate with each other through scent marking and other sign along snow leopard trails. When they mate, a male will usually stay with a female for about a week before returning to his solitary rounds.
Spring is chilly and snowy. Spring (and early summer) is also the season in which snow leopard cubs are born.
Females who became pregnant during the winter mating season will seek out a warm, protected place to give birth. Snow leopards are so secretive that scientists still know rather little about these hidden den sites. Our team only found the first ever active snow leopard den sites in 2012.
Female snow leopards are pregnant for around 93 to 110 days, and cubs are small and helpless when they are born. They don’t even open their eyes until they are seven days old! Usually two or three cubs are born in each litter.
Very rarely, snow leopards in captivity have given birth to up to seven cubs at a time. In the wild, it would be quite challenging for a mother cat to feed and successfully raise more than two or three cubs at a time.
For the first few months of their life, cubs remain in the den while the mother snow leopard hunts, but she comes back to the den frequently to nurse the cubs. They eat their first solid food at around 2 months old.
By late summer, the cubs will be following their mother around the high mountain slopes. They will stay with their mothers, however, until they are 18-22 months of age. For this reason, female snow leopards mate only every other year. Females who gave birth last spring will be teaching their year-old cubs to hunt.