Domed

skull

Turbinates

Nasal

cavity

Brain

Brain

Turbinates

Inhale

Exhale

Cold air

inhaled

2.4 inches

in winter

2 inches

in summer

25,806

hairs per square inch

Pelvis

Lumbar

vertebrae

Caudal vertebrae

Femur

Fibula

Tibia

Dark rosetes

Stabilizer

counterbalance

natural snowshoes

Siberian ibex

(Capra sibirica)

mountain hunters

Snow leopards have been scraping out a living on the roof of the world for eons. These elusive, high-altitude cats were once thought to be distant relatives of the big cats—Panthera—due to their unique morphology, but genetic analysis places them firmly with the big cats.

by manuel canales

and taylor magGiacomo

Snow leopard

(Panthera uncia)

ADAPTED TO THE EXTREME

They balance their need for speed and power in pursuit of prey with adaptations to help them cope with the challenges of their environment: steep terrain, low oxygen, and bitter cold. This environment requires anatomical compromises—their small bodies have less force but expend less energy.

Current range

of snow leopards

Special domed skulls also allow for greater oxygen intake and more surface area for bite muscles, while keeping the head smaller than the robust, flatter crania of other big cats. Large nostrils and wide nasal cavities make it easier to inhale large amounts of thin, oxygen-poor mountain air.

Their nasal cavities house especially large and dense mazes of bone and tissue called turbinates. A snow leopard inhales freezing air into the turbinates, and it is heated as it mixes with the warm air exiting the lungs.

Extra-large paws relative to their body act like snowshoes, distributing weight and keeping the cats from sinking into deep snow.

Paw size as percent of body size

Snow leopard

tiger

6%

10%

Long thick fur—the longest of the big cats—traps a layer of air near the skin to insulate their bodies in subzero temperatures.

Snow leopards have the longest tails, proportionally, of the big cats—nearly as long as the rest of the body. When resting on mountain slopes, snow leopards wrap their thick tail over their legs and nose like a scarf to keep warm.

Similar to cheetahs, snow leopards have elongated hind limbs for faster acceleration and longer jumps than jaguars and other cats. They're the only big cats with elongated tibiae, an adaptation also seen in cheetahs.

Tibia

Femur

Snow leopard

jaguar

PRECARIOUS PURSUIT

Snow leopards are formidable predators, pursuing prey at up to 40 miles per hour in the steepest terrains. Their prefered targets are the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the Himalaya and the mountain ibex, which is found over most of the rest of their range. They also eat smaller animals, such as marmots, hares, and game birds.

With tan to gray coats specked with dark rosettes, snow leopards are well camouflaged in the rocky scree as they stalk their prey.

Snow leopards can leap across 50-foot gorges; they can also jump six feet high with no running start.

The long tail extends like a rudder, helping to steer them during jumps and counterbalance their weight as they change direction by rebounding off walls.

Their long and flexible lower spine lets them extend and contract their bodies to cover more ground with each stride and quickly increase speed.

They try to catch a large animal every eight to 10 days, consuming it over several days.

Thanks to their unique physical adaptations, these hunters of the heights can kill animals that weigh three times as much as they do and go on to thrive in some of the world's most extreme environments.

MANUEL CANALES, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, and EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF. MESA SCHUMACHEr

SOURCES: ANDREW KITCHENER, NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND; TOM MCCARTHY, PANTHERA; JAN E. JANECKA, DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY

READ THE FULL STORY

Domed skull

Turbinates

Nasal cavity

Brain

Brain

Turbinates

Inhale

Inhale

Exhale

Cold air inhaled

Paw size as percent of body size

Snow leopard

tiger

6%

10%

2.4 inches

in winter

2 inches

in summer

25,806

hairs per square inch

Current range

of snow leopards

Pelvis

Caudal vertebrae

Lumbar

vertebrae

Femur

Fibula

Tibia

Dark rosetTes

Stabilizer

counterbalance

Siberian ibex

(Capra sibirica)

Tibia

Femur

Snow leopard

jaguar

mountain hunters

Snow leopards have been scraping out a living on the roof of the world for eons. These elusive, high-altitude cats were once thought to be distant relatives of the big cats—Panthera—due to their unique morphology, but genetic analysis places them firmly with the big cats.

by manuel canales and taylor magGiacomo

Snow leopard

(Panthera uncia)

ADAPTED TO THE EXTREME

They balance their need for speed and power in pursuit of prey with adaptations to help them cope with the challenges of their environment: steep terrain, low oxygen, and bitter cold. This environment requires anatomical compromises—their small bodies have less force but expend less energy.

Current range

of snow leopards

Special domed skulls also allow for greater oxygen intake and more surface area for bite muscles, while keeping the head smaller than the robust, flatter crania of other big cats. Large nostrils and wide nasal cavities make it easier to inhale large amounts of thin, oxygen-poor mountain air.

Their nasal cavities house especially large and dense mazes of bone and tissue called turbinates. A snow leopard inhales freezing air into the turbinates, and it is heated as it mixes with the warm air exiting the lungs.

Extra-large paws relative to their body act like snowshoes, distributing weight and keeping the cats from sinking into deep snow.

Paw size as percent of body size

Snow leopard

tiger

6%

10%

Long thick fur—the longest of the big cats—traps a layer of air near the skin to insulate their bodies in subzero temperatures.

Snow leopards have the longest tails, proportionally, of the big cats—nearly as long as the rest of the body. When resting on mountain slopes, snow leopards wrap their thick tail over their legs and nose like a scarf to keep warm.

Similar to cheetahs, snow leopards have elongated hind limbs for faster acceleration and longer jumps than jaguars and other cats. They're the only big cats with elongated tibiae, an adaptation also seen in cheetahs.

Tibia

Femur

Snow leopard

jaguar

PRECARIOUS PURSUIT

Snow leopards are formidable predators, pursuing prey at up to 40 miles per hour in the steepest terrains. Their prefered targets are the blue sheep (bharal) of Tibet and the Himalaya and the mountain ibex, which is found over most of the rest of their range. They also eat smaller animals, such as marmots, hares, and game birds.

With tan to gray coats specked with dark rosettes, snow leopards are well camouflaged in the rocky scree as they stalk their prey.

Snow leopards can leap across 50-foot gorges; they can also jump six feet high with no running start.

The long tail extends like a rudder, helping to steer them during jumps and counterbalance their weight as they change direction by rebounding off walls.

Their long and flexible lower spine lets them extend and contract their bodies to cover more ground with each stride and quickly increase speed.

They try to catch a large animal every eight to 10 days, consuming it over several days.

Thanks to their unique physical adaptations, these hunters of the heights can kill animals that weigh three times as much as they do and go on to thrive in some of the world's most extreme environments.

MANUEL CANALES, TAYLOR MAGGIACOMO, and EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF. MESA SCHUMACHEr

SOURCES: ANDREW KITCHENER, NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND; TOM MCCARTHY, PANTHERA;

JAN E. JANECKA, DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY

READ THE FULL STORY