Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A year in the life of a snow leopard: Summer

In the high mountain environments where snow leopards live, summer buzzes with life. The species that call this harsh environment home 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 that are the snow leopard's primary large prey move up the steep slopes during the summer 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. Its powerfully built, barrel-shaped chest gives it the strength to climb the steep slopes. Its long, muscular hind legs enable it to leap up to 30 feet—nearly six times its body length—in pursuit of prey.

The long tail that served as a muffler to keep the snow leopard warm during the winter reveals another purpose here, helping the cat keep its balance as it leaps among rocky outcrops and narrow ledges after its agile prey. The cat's pale coat with dark-gray to black spots also aids in hunting, helping to camouflage the cat against the rocky slopes.

By the end of the summer, cubs that were born this year will be venturing out of the protective den where they were born, and testing out their balance 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. The yearlings may look nearly full-grown now, but they have a lot of learning yet to do before they strike off on their own. snowleopardsummer

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