As the snow leopards’ winter mating season nears its end and cubs are on the horizon, we invite you to follow a snow leopard through a typical year.
While spring means warmer temperatures, new leaves and colorful flowers to most of us, it’s a different story to a snow leopard. The mountains of Central Asia continue to be a snowy, cold and rather inhospitable place well into the summer months. For the female cats that became pregnant during the winter mating season, this means they need to seek out a warm, protected place to give birth to their cubs.
Female snow leopards are pregnant for around 93 to 110 days, and cubs are small and helpless when they are born. They don’t even open their eyes until they are seven days old! Between one and three cubs are usually born in each litter.
Newborn Cubs Need Their Mom
For the first few months of their life, cubs remain in the den while the mother snow leopard hunts, but she comes back to the den frequently to nurse the cubs. They eat their first solid food at around 2 months old. By late summer, the cubs will be following their mother around the high mountain slopes. They will stay with their mothers, however, until they are 18-22 months of age. For this reason, female snow leopards mate only every other year. Females who gave birth last spring will be teaching their year-old cubs to hunt.
When summer finally does make an appearance, the snow leopards’ habitat positively buzzes with activity. The wildlife that makes a home in this harsh environment are busy raising their young and feasting on the foods that are available during this brief but intense season, storing up for the lean months ahead.
Wild sheep and goat species move up the steep slopes to feed on mountain grasses – and snow leopards follow. The snow leopard’s hunting behavior makes clear how well the cat is adapted to its habitat. The long tail that kept the snow leopard warm during the winter helps the cat keep its balance as it leaps among rocky outcrops and narrow ledges after its prey.
By the end of the summer, cubs will be venturing out of the den where they were born, as they begin to follow their mother when she hunts. Cubs born last year will probably continue to stay with their mother until she breeds in December or January, or even until she gives birth next spring.
In the fall, the snows begin to arrive again. The snow leopard’s thick winter coat, which will keep the cat warm through the freezing months ahead, is growing in. The cat follows its prey down the steep mountain slopes, moving along with the herds of ibex, bharal (blue sheep), markhor, urial, argali, and other grazers.
As snow covers the landscape and prey becomes harder to find, snow leopards may hunt many types of animals to survive. Their diets vary but may include small mammals such as rabbit, hare, marmot, and pika, and birds such as pheasant, partridge, and snowcock. Scientists have also found that snow leopards eat some grass, twigs, and other vegetation. The vegetation may serve as a source of extra vitamins, aid in digestion, or help the cats eliminate parasites—no one knows for sure. In addition to feeding herself, a mother snow leopard must hunt to feed her growing cubs.
By Christmas, most of the snow leopard’s range will be covered by a thick layer of snow. Temperatures drop from bitterly cold to downright frigid. For the snow leopard, of course, wintery conditions are no issue. Its thick fur will have grown really long by now, keeping the cat warm. Its large, broad paws act like snowshoes, helping our snow leopard walk on top of the drifts of snow, and long fur between its toes helps protect its feet from frostbite. The snow leopard even has a built-in scarf, its long, bushy tail that it often wraps around its body and face for added warmth when resting.
Winter does have its perils though. Human-snow leopard conflicts often increase in the cold season; as food becomes scarcer and prey animals move to lower altitudes, where people and their livestock live. Hungry snow leopards follow and occasionally kill and eat a herder’s goat or sheep; increasing the possibility of retribution killings.
Dating Behavior: Cats Seeking Company
Although snow leopards are solitary, they do come together in the winter months to mate. Through our GPS tracking studies, we’ve found out that home ranges of individual cats can overlap quite a bit, with several females usually using parts of one male snow leopard’s range. Of course, this helps males and females find each other during the mating season from January to March. The cats also communicate with each other through scent marking and other sign along snow leopard trails.
When they mate, a male will usually stay with a female for about a week before returning to his solitary rounds; while the pregnant females will seek a den site on their own. Cubs will be born in spring or early summer. We’ve observed a presumed snow leopard father in the vicinity of the den site where his offspring was born, but we don’t know yet what the father’s role in raising the little ones could be.