Among the big cats there are are three that go by the name of leopard – the ‘Leopard proper’, the ‘Snow Leopard’, and the ‘Clouded Leopard’. Sometimes, the Cheetah is referred to as the ‘Hunting Leopard’ but that is a rare, and increasingly archaic term. However, the ‘Snow’ and ‘Clouded’ species are distant cousins of the ‘Leopard proper’, in evolutionary terms. Their names have more to do with the pattern of their coats than actual relationships. The cat family or felids are a conservative group in terms of form and habit. Their bodies (except for the likes of the Cheetah and some others, that evolved for hunting at high speed on the open plains, or in keeping with a specific habitat) and lifestyles are strikingly similar – stealthy carnivores that use sharp canines, retractable claws and short bursts of energy to bring down prey. It’s all about power and secrecy. Unlike the dog family that relies on numbers, cunning and cooperation to make up for the lack of sheer size and strength.
The Leopard, Snow Leopard and Clouded Leopard have coats that help them melt into their surroundings. But all three evolved as part of different lineages. We will take up the smallest species, the Clouded Leopard, first. What we think of as one species of cat – the Clouded Leopard of tropical and subtropical Asia, are in fact two – Neofelis nebulosa of the mainland, and Neofelis diardi of Sumatra and Borneo (in the Indonesian archipelago). Belonging to the genus Neofelis, they are characterized by extremely long canines (the longest in proportion to size among the bigger cats), and an amazing degree of skill when it comes to scaling trees. They are also diminutive, rarely exceeding 26 kg in weight. More importantly, they form an independent lineage within the subfamily Pantherinae (which includes both Neofelis and Panthera).
The Leopard (Panthera pardus) has a far more impressive size and distribution, ranging over much of Africa and Asia, except for the hottest and coldest regions (deserts and tundra). They are perfectly adapted to both savanna grasslands and tropical rainforests. The largest specimens, found in Iran and the Caucasus, can weigh as much as 90 kg. While Clouded Leopards were the first to split off, the lineage that led to Leopards, and their closest relatives, the Lions (Panthera leo) and Jaguars (Panthera onca), was the last. This is estimated to have occurred somewhere around 3.8 million years ago. They were preceded by the Tiger’s lineage which separated around 3.9 million years ago. While the exact relationship between Leopards, Lions and Jaguars hasn’t been worked out, it is believed that the latter split off first.
Ancestral Jaguars moved from the Old World to the New, over the Bering Land Bridge (connecting Chukotka and Alaska). Lions and Leopards were the last to split, most probably in Africa. The former followed Jaguars into the New World while the latter went no further than Eurasia. That leaves us with the Tiger (Panthera tigris). This greatest of big cats belongs to a lineage that was the second to separate. But it wasn’t the sole member. Giving it company was the Snow Leopard (Panthera uncia), a most unlikely species. For long, the Snow Leopard was given a genus all its own, and the scientific name Uncia uncia. However, careful analysis of genetic material has revealed that it is most closely related to Tigers. The two separated around 3.2 million years ago in Asia, evolving to operate in radically different habitats. The Snow Leopard became the apex predator of the continent’s harsh mountainous interior.
Weighing as much as 75 kg, they are perfectly adapted to their alpine homeland. Their wide paws, short legs, stocky bodies, thick fur, small ears and large nasal cavities are designed to minimize heat loss and withstand the biting cold. An extremely long but well insulated tail helps them negotiate the steep terrain. Like Tigers, they are solitary hunters that can take down large to medium sized ungulate prey – Wild Yak (Bos mutus), Argali (Ovis ammon), Markhor (Capra falconeri), Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica), Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) and Bharal (Pseudois nayaur). But they also consume small mammals (marmots, hares, pikas) and birds (snowcocks, partridges). Unlike their larger cousins, Snow Leopards can’t roar. Instead, they hiss and mewl like smaller felids.
Another, less fortunate similarity between the two species is their endangered status. Snow Leopard habitat, confined to the mountains and plateaus of Central Asia at an altitude of 3,000-4,500 m above sea level is highly fragile. Human persecution and and climate change can drive a population that already numbers under ten thousand, over the edge. In India, they can be found in Hemis, Great Himalayan, Valley of Flowers, and Nanda Devi National Parks. The Sacred Himalayan Landscape, a conservation area stretching over Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan is another crucial refuge. These iconic cats have featured in the folklore, coat of arms, currency, seals and stamps of Asian nations. Hopefully, all of them will get together and preserve this most elusive of felids in flesh and blood.
Image Attribution: The image above shows a Snow Leopard on a 5 Rupees Indian Stamp (1987). It has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons and was uploaded by Irbis.