Snow Leopards: Masters of Disguise

The snow leopard's ability to blend in with its surroundings is legendary. It even earned the cat its most famous nickname, Ghost of the Mountain.

“Perhaps people started calling this cat Snow Leopard because the few times anyone would spot one, it would have been crossing a snow field”, says Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander, Regional Ecologist with the Snow Leopard Trust. “But Rock Leopard would be a more appropriate name, because that’s where they are most at home.”

Spot the camouflaged cat! A snow leopard is hiding in plain sight in this picture taken in Mongolia’s Tost Mountains (click on the photo to enlarge – or scroll down for spoilers). Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation

Scientifically, the cat is known as Panthera uncia. Uncia – as well as the occasionally used English name ounce – are derived from the Old French word once, originally used for the European lynx; a cat with a similar coloring but very different physiology and geographical range. The snow leopard was first described by German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in his 1777 publication Die Säugethiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen

Much as in Western languages, the snow leopard’s various names in its native lands often refer to the cat’s mountainous abode. They include “wāwrīn pṛāng” (Pashto: واورين پړانګ‎), “shan” (Ladakhi), “zigsa” (Tibetan), “irves” (Mongolian: ирвэс), “bars” or “barys” (Kazakh: барыс [ˈbɑrəs]), “ilbirs” (Kyrgyz: Илбирс), “barfānī chītā” (Hindi, Urdu: برفانی چیتا – meaning “snowy leopard”), “snezhnyy bars” (Russian: снежный барс, meaning “snowy leopard”, palang-e barfi (Dari: پلنگ برفی, meaning “snowy tiger”) and “him tendua” (Sanskrit, Hindi: हिम तेन्दुआ, meaning “snowy leopard”).

The reveal! Click on the photo to open a larger version. Photo by Snow Leopard Trust / Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation

The snow leopard is shy and elusive, and it occurs at very low densities – so encounters are naturally rare. But if you are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, the big cat is relatively easy to spot in the white snow.

On the other hand, against a backdrop of grey, beige and yellowish rocks, perhaps dotted with a few sparse, straw-colored bushes, the snow leopard becomes all but invisible even to a trained observer. And to its prey.

A group of unsuspecting bharal (blue sheep) are in for a surprise (scroll down for spoilers). Photo by Inger Van Dyke

“Snow leopards are stalkers. Unlike wolves, who tend to chase and wear their prey down, snow leopards don’t usually hunt over long distances. Instead, they sneak up on their prey and pounce from up close with their powerful burst”, Justine Shanti Alexander explains. “Their mountain habitat is difficult to navigate, and their prey – wild sheep and goats – is nimble and quick. So the element of surprise is the cat’s best weapon.”

The camouflaged hunter is about to pounce on its prey! Photo by Inger Van Dyke

It’s the cat’s thick, grey-white fur with its dark spots and rosettes that provides the snow leopard with a natural camouflage and gives it its outstanding ability to blend in with its surroundings.

This skill has earned the snow leopard its nickname, “Ghost of the Mountain” – and much of the mystique surrounding it. And it’s what inspired Peter Matthiessen’s famous line: “Have you seen the snow leopard? No. Isn’t that wonderful?”

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