Known as the ghost of the mountains for its stealthy movements with its beautifully patterned coat perfectly camouflaging its rocky habitat, the snow leopard is a rare big cat with several unique physical characteristics of its own. It is perfectly adapted to the cold and high-altitude, prefers rocky, broken terrain and can move in around 36 inches (85 cm) deep snow, but prefers to use existing trails made by other animals. It is widely distributed from the west of Lake Baikal throughout the cold mountainous regions of several countries, which include Siberian Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Indian Himalayas. On the Alpine meadows, the snow leopards usually live above the tree line in the summer, while in rocky regions they prefer to stay at elevations from 8,900 to 19,700 feet (2.700 to 6,000 m). However, in winter, they descend to elevations around 3,900 to 6,600 feet (1,200 to 2,000 m). Nevertheless, the ideal snow leopard habitat is bleak, dangerous, cold and desolate and the temperature is below 40 degree Fahrenheit.
The soft coat of the snow leopard, consists of a dense, insulating undercoat and a thick outer coat of hairs of about 2 inches (5 cm) long, which is whitish to pale grey with large rosettes on the back and black spots on the head and neck, while the underparts with longer fur are uniformly whitish. The thick white-grey coat spotted with large black rosettes is the perfect camouflage for their rocky habitat, allowing them to stalk their prey. Generally, the length of a snow leopard varies between 30 to 59 inches (75 and 150 cm), plus a tail, adding another 31 to 41 inches (80 to 105 cm), which makes them smaller than the other big cats like the tigers and the lions. However, their fat tails are longer than the other big cats, which help them to maintain balance on the steep, rocky slopes and also provide them additional protection against the cold, when they curl their bushy tails to wrap them around their bodies to stay warm. Their short muzzles and small ears also help them to conserve heat. Snow leopards generally weigh between 22 and 55 kg (49 to 121 lb), although a large male may be weighing up to 75 kg (165 Ibs), while a small female may weigh under 25 kg (55 lb).
Its stocky body and short and strong hind legs give the animal the ability to leap up to 30 feet (9.1 m), around 6 times their body length. While their broad paws help to well distribute the bodyweight for walking on snow, the fur on their undersides helps them to increase the grip on steep and unstable surfaces, apart from protecting their toes from the biting cold. Unlike other big cats the eyes of the snow leopard are grey or pale green, instead of golden and unlike tigers and lions, they cannot roar and communicates by using mews, growls, chuffing, hisses, and wails.
Snow leopards are solitary and elusive creatures that usually hunt at dawn and dusk. They are stealthy predators, able to kill prey up to three times their own weight, with the probable exception of the adult male yak and kill the prey with a neck bite, while squatting on its haunches. Their most common prey is Himalayan blue sheep and can survive on a single Himalayan blue sheep for two weeks before going for another kill. It is estimated that an adult individual snow leopard apparently needs 20 to 30 adult blue sheep per year. Although they are solitary animals, they also hunt successfully in pairs, especially the mating pairs.
Apart from Himalayan blue sheep they also prey Argali, also known as the mountain sheep, ibex or wild goat, deer and Himalayan marmot. However, in the case of non availability of big animals, snow leopards also take smaller animals such as voles and pika, a small, mountain-dwelling mammal. Strange it may seem, but they also eat a significant amount of vegetation, including grass and twigs.
The snow leopards become sexually mature at two to three years. The adults become solitary animals, who leave individual scent marks to indicate their territories and common travel routes. However, the basically solitary animal interacts with others during the breeding season for finding sex-partner. They mate in late winter, marked by a noticeable increase in marking and calling. Males do not tend to seek out another partner after mating, probably because of the short mating season, when they mate in the usual posture from 12 to 36 times a day. After a gestation period of around 95 days, the cubs are born between April and June in a litter, usually containing two to three cubs.
The cubs, weighing 320 to 567 grams are born blind, but with a thick coat of fur. While their eyes open at around seven days, they can walk at five weeks and are fully weaned by 10 weeks. However, they stay with the mother for at least 18 months, before start wandering the vast mountain expanses independently.
Although the lifespan of a snow leopard is typically 15 to 25 years, in captivity they can live up to 25 years.