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Snow Leopards

 

What is a snow leopard?  A beautiful mountain cat with long thick fur, not much bigger than a hefty golden retriever, if a golden retriever had a tail like a furry python strapped to his rear. The color is hard to describe, sometimes yellow enough that you get the "leopard" connection, but sometimes grey and white, like snow-dusted granite, more like a bobcat or lynx.  Snow Leopards have a big sinus cavity which gives them domed foreheads, making them look just a bit kitten-like, or human-like. That's the impression I get. Snow leopards hide. Their cryptic coloration and their habit of ambush hunting from hidden perches make them virtually impossible to see. Snow leopards are predators, like all cats. They hunt large, hooved animals like ibex and argali sheep and unfortunately, livestock, but also little critters like picas and marmots. Snow leopards are rare and secretive. It's unlikely that you will ever see one in the wild.  Perhaps, a movement on a talus slope, where a thin trickle of gravel whispers as it falls, or eyes in a rock that otherwise seems like every other rock, unmoving, a heedless ghost walking in the shadow of a cliff until it disappears into clear crisp air. Then, you will have seen it. The snow leopard.

Snow leopards aren't just leopards who live in the snow. In fact, they aren't leopards at all, or even closely related to leopards. They are their own species, Panthera Uncia. Uncia is Latin. Any old altar boy would recognize that. Uncia is the word from which the outmoded term "ounce" derives, ounce meaning a lynx, not a measure of weight. Snow Leopards aren't related to lynxes, either, but they are distantly related to tigers, of all things. 3.3 million years ago there was some kind of big cat running around prehistoric Asia full of unrecognized potential for speciation. 3.2 million years ago all the proto-tigers had a meeting and split off to become tigers, and the other guys set off to become snow leopards. "Become" is a bit of a terse way to cover the eons of evolutionary change that have made them into the bewitching creatures they are.


Snow leopards live in the mountainous regions of Central Asia, in Nepal, Pakistan, China, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, a couple other of the 'stans. I've read that there appear to be between three and seven thousand of them in the world.  By the way, that's not a big number. If you wanted, for some deeply personal reason, to gather every single snow leopard in the world onto a high school athletic field, you could do it. But, first, you'd have to find them. That is hard. It's a bit of a pain that snow leopards are so secretive and difficult to find. Researchers are still learning about them. Snow leopards mostly live in steep rocky areas about a mile high or higher, dotted with scrubby plants or grassy areas. They can hide very well in these environments, both from their prey, and from us humans, who have not exactly been their best buddies. One wonders whether they live where they do by default of being exterminated elsewhere, kind of like why lions live in Africa. I mean, it ain't paradise up there.



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