Snow leopards are a fine case study in adaptation. The high-altitude cats live at elevations between 600 and 5,000 m, occupying some of the coldest and loftiest mountain ranges in the world. Understandably, the weather can be pretty hostile on their home turf, so, like many alpine species, the snow leopard has evolved in remarkable ways to thrive in its habitat.
To deal with the thin mountain air and low oxygen levels snow leopards have larger nasal passages, bigger chest cavities, and a high red blood cell count, so their bodies can make the most of every breath. Cold is another factor, as temperatures in parts of the Himalayas can get as low as -40 in the winter, despite blue skies. For this, snow leopards are equipped with exceptionally thick fur, the “densest of all cats,” says a video from National Geographic. “They have 26,000 hairs per square inch, while humans have about 1,300.” Their paws are wide and flat, like snow shoes, enabling them to walk on snow rather than sink into it, and their ears are smaller than is usual in cats, to avoid unnecessary loss of body heat. These adaptations make the alpine leopard the apex predator of its habitat.
Except, its habitat is changing.
Climate change has resulted in rapid warming in high Asia, threatening the mountain ecosystem, and the survival of its foremost predator. “The Tibetan plateau, home to more than half of the remaining snow leopards, has already gotten three degrees warmer in the last 20 years,” according to the Snow Leopard Trust, which operates in five countries, and works with local communities to facilitate conservation of the species.
Other studies indicate that of all the snow leopard territories in the world, the Himalayas and the Hengduan Mountains of China are most vulnerable to habitat loss from changing weather patterns, fragmentation, and increased human presence. So what does this mean for the Ghost of the Mountains?