8 Demystifying Facts About the Snow Leopard

This beautiful big cat is endangered. (Photo: Jeannette Katzir Photog/Shutterstock)
A snow leopard in the wild. (Photo: Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock)

Lions and tigers get all the glory, but there's another big cat that deserves your attention — the snow leopard. Also known as an "ounce," these beautiful felines are one of the most elusive mammals in the world.

As a testament to their enigmatic majesty, snow leopards have been declared the National Heritage Animal of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. On a global level, there's even a holiday honoring these gorgeous cats — International Snow Leopard Day on Oct. 23.

Here are a few other things you might not know about snow leopards.

1. They like to live the high life

A snow leopard looks out over a craggy cliff. (Photo: Suha Derbent/Shutterstock)

Snow leopards are found across alpine and subalpine mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. Starting out on the west of Siberia's Lake Baikal, the big cat's range swerves across the Five Stans and into Afghanistan and Pakistan before making its way through the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

According to the Snow Leopard Trust, the species prefers "the broken terrain of cliffs, rocky outcrops and ravines. This type of habitat provides good cover and clear views to help them find prey, and sneak up on it."

2. Their bodies are built for bitter, snowy climates

A snow leopard stalks through the snow. (Photo: Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock)

Everything about a snow leopard's body has been optimized for frigid mountain environments. While their stocky bodies and thick fur are obvious advantages, they also boast long tails that help them balance on rocky alpine terrain, large nasal cavities that help them breathe thin, cold air and small, rounded ears that minimize heat loss. They even use their extra long, thick tail as a blanket for their face while sleeping!

3. They use their wide paws like snow shoes

A young snow leopard shows off his chunky paws. (Photo: Victoria Hillman/Shutterstock)

Another cold climate adaptation these kitties are famous for are their massive, chunky paws. They're often likened to natural "snow shoes" because their sizeable width allows the cats to better distribute their weight while walking in the snow. They're also lined with extra fur on their paw pads, which provides traction against icy surfaces.

4. They're endangered

This beautiful big cat is endangered. (Photo: Jeannette Katzir Photog/Shutterstock)

From tigers to cheetahs, there are a troubling number of wild cats that are considered threatened or endangered. The snow leopard is one of these. The species was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2008 following the release of data that showed populations declining by at least 20% in the past two decades. There are currently between 4,000 and 7,000 individuals left in the wild. According to its IUCN listing, the major threats to these felines include "prey base depletion, illegal trade, conflict with local people and lack of conservation capacity, policy and awareness."

5. We aren't sure how long they can live in the wild

The world's oldest snow leopard, Shynghyz, lives in Tokyo's Tama Zoo. (Photo: Steve Tracy [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Due to their reclusive nature, scientists aren't totally sure of the average longevity of wild snow leopards, but it's likely comparable to other big cats. Tigers, their closest relatives, typically live 10 to 15 years in the wild. However, when you factor in captivity, the life expectancy of big cats shoots up significantly. The world's oldest snow leopard, Shynghyz (pictured above), was 25 years old when he died of kidney failure on Oct. 10, 2015, at the Tama Zoo in Tokyo, Japan.

6. They can't roar

Snow leopards can't roar. (Photo: Ondrej Chvatal/Shutterstock)

When you think about what sounds a big cat makes, the majestic, head-tossing roar of an African lion is likely the first thing to come to mind. However, not all big cats roar like that, the snow leopard included! The reason these lovely felines can't roar likely has something to do with an absence of certain larynx features that lions and other roaring big cats have. Instead of roars, snow leopards communicate through hisses, growls, wails and chuffing, which is a short, non-threatening vocalization that is used in greeting between two cats. The only other big cat that chuffs is the snow leopard's closest relative, the tiger.

7. They're pacifists

A leaping snow leopard. (Photo: Jeannette Katzir Photog/Shutterstock)

Unlike lions or tigers, snow leopards generally try to avoid confrontations with humans. While they're undoubtedly skilled, carnivorous hunters, getting aggressive with an encroaching human is just not their style. In fact, you might even call them "scaredy cats." According to the Snow Leopard Trust, "there has never been a verified snow leopard attack on a human being. Even if disturbed while feeding, a snow leopard is more likely to run away than try to defend the site."

8. They're a secretive bunch

A snow leopard on the prowl. (Photo: Vladislav T. Jirousek/Shutterstock)

Snow leopards are notorious for their shy demeanor. Part of the reason they aren't seen very much is that they're crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Not to mention the fact that they boast the perfect camouflage to stay hidden in snowy mountain terrain! Their mysterious nature is one of the reasons we don't have a good estimate of how many snow leopards currently exist in the wild.