Many species have become extinct. Just as alarming is the ever increasing number of species that are not only becoming endangered but critically endangered. The course which this research paper has been written for is extensive. It is not possible to cover everything in one research paper. With this in mind, this paper will be restricted to the morphology, distribution, population, habitat and ecology, and behaviour of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia).
Snow leopard, a medium to large sized carnivore panthera, lives in high-altitude regions in Central Asia (Sunquist& Sunquist, 2002). The snow leopard typical weight ranges from 27 and 54 kilograms. The body length of the panthera species in question can measure anything from 74 – 130 centimetres; however, this measurement does not include the animal’s tail. The tail can actually be just as long as the body length. The long thick fur varies in colour between smoky grey to a yellowish tan with a white belly. In addition, the snow leopard typically has grey to black open patterns reminiscent of rosettes on their body. There are also small spots of the same colour not only on their heads but on their legs and tail as well. The spots on the legs and tail are typically larger than that which is seen on their heads.
The snow leopards, well adapted for mountain life, have chest and short forelimbs with large paws capable of handling the terrain the species is found dwelling in. The aforementioned paws have a fur underside. This underside of fur increases traction on steep surfaces. The animal’s hind legs are long. The longer hind legs, coupled with having a long flexible, increase are perfect for leaping and sustained balance on unstable surfaces.
The conditions in the habitat where snow leopards are typically found are less than ideal; however, the animal is equally well protected from climatic conditions by having a stocky body with small, rounded ears and an enlarged nasal cavity. As previously mentioned, the animal has long body fur. This body fur, with woolly undergrowth, is combined with a thick furry tail that can be wrapped around the face. This essentially aids in minimising heat loss.
Despite possessing an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone, the snow leopard is surprisingly unable to roar. Possessing an incomplete ossification of the hyoid bone was previously believed to be essential in allowing cats to roar; however, there is a logical explanation for the snow leopard’s lack of roar. It has been mentioned several times in class that it is easier for a species to lose a train rather than acquire one. Just as some birds are now incapable of flying, snow leopards are incapable of roaring.
Snow leopards are, most of the times, regarded as opportunistic predators, since they exploit a wide range of prey species (Anwar et al., 2011). Ungulates that most of the times represent the main snow leopard’s diet constituents include sheep, urial, goats, blue sheep and markhor. Other snow leopards’ prey items include birds, rodents as well as small and medium mammals like marmots, hares and musk deer (Shehzad et al., 2012). In Mongolia, argali and Siberian ibex are some of the snow leopards’ natural prey. Snow leopards require an annual prey of between 20 and 30 adult blue sheep. Since they live in areas with strenuous conditions, they do not experience a lot of competition from other predators. However, snow leopards have been experiencing an indirect competition from livestock. Snow leopards preys have been competing for forage with livestock thus decreasing the prey base. This has subsequently made the snow leopards to start killing livestock for food.
The geographical range of the snow leopard’s habitat is estimated to be approximately 1.8 million km² (McCarthy, Fuller & Munkhtsog, 2005). Of the said 1.8 million km², 550 000km² is typically considered prime habitat. The habitat, for want of a better word, is transcontinental, covering no less than twelve countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, Tibet (Xizang), India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan (Feng et al., 2012).
According to Blomqvist & Sten, (1982) the snow leopards female sexual maturity appears at the age of 3 years. Their productivity continues after 3 years of age and reaches a peak at the age of between 3 and 8 years old. After the ninth year, the productivity of snow leopards starts decreasing slowly until it reaches 11 years, after which the productivity begins to decrease more abruptly. The sexual maturity of male snow leopards is the same as that of female snow leopards (3 years). However, both female and male begin copulating before reaching maturity, but the mating is considered poor. Due to their elusive and secretive nature, very little has been documented on the sex ratio of snow leopards.
In relation to seasonal patterns, the hair (fur) of the snow leopard is usually denser throughout the winter period as compared to the summer period. During the winter season, snow leopards live in regions with 4, 000 feet elevations while during the spring season they live in regions with 15, 000 feet elevations.
During oestrus, snow leopards portray a significant increase in prusten and allogrooming. Both male and female snow leopards often scent-mark, though the male snow leopards scent-mark more frequently than female snow leopards. In addition, the female snow leopards roll on the ground and lie on their back during oestrus. Further, they rub their heads against each other and at particular spots. Further, they often present themselves to the males by raising their tails and walking in-front of them.
Snow leopards have a gestation period of between 90 and 100 days after which they give birth to between 1 and 5 cubs. At birth, a snow leopard cub weighs approximately 500g which increases to approximately 2kg after 2 years. The cubs are usually born blind but open their eyes after between 5 and 15 years. In addition, they lactate for about 5 months and begin to eat meat after between 6 and 8 weeks.
A snow leopard can live up to 20 years in a confined area but it is very hard for it to live up to 10 years in the wild. Between the year 2000 and 2007, the number of snow leopard cubs born per year was ranging between 35 and 71 which results to 55 cubs per year. On the other hand, the number of snow leopards that died between the year 2000 and 2007 was ranging from 50 to 82 deaths which results to 66 deaths per year. The fact that the death rate of snow leopards is greater than their birth rate explains the significant decrease in the population of snow leopards.
According to Blomqvist & Zoo (2008), the productive life of male snow leopards is longer as compared to the productive life of female snow leopards. They also established that the average litter size of snow leopards is 2.1.
At the age of between 1 and 2 years, the survivorship of snow leopards is high since they can only die due to diseases such as osteochondritis dissecans (Herrin et al., 2012) and tuberculosis (Helman et al., 1998). The survivorship then begins to decline rapidly due to conflicts with human beings and poaching. Due to the depleting prey base, snow leopards have resorted to killing of livestock and the shepherds retaliate by killing them. In addition, people capture them for pets while others kill them for fur, bones and pelt.