Snow leopard cubs – reproduction and development

This page is about snow leopard cubs and the wider topic of reproduction and development. A couple of scientists studying the snow leopard, Jackson and Ahlborn reported when observing a female and her to one-year-old cubs moving through a remote mountain area as follows: “[The female was] sauntering along with the cubs doing everything but saunter beside her. They romped. They chased one another, rolling and tumbling down the steep hillside. They stalked imaginary sheep. They leaped and charged, playing as if they were baby kittens while their mother padded along, well aware of the small herd of bharal on the slopes above“. “Bharal” are blue sheep, the classic prey of the snow leopard.

Snow leopards larking around
Snow leopards larking around. These are subadult snow leopard messing around just like domestic kittens.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

When birth takes place

The habitat of the snow leopard is harsh and high above sea level. This means very cold winters during which there are limited prey opportunities. This would indicate that the time during which the snow leopard gives birth is restricted to the months when food is more readily available.

Snow leopard - superb cat and background
Snow leopard – superb cat and background. Screenshot from BBC video.

This, in fact, is the case. The difference between the snow leopard and common leopard is stark in this respect. In captivity the birth months of the common leopard are fairly even with a slight peak in March, while the snow leopard peaks markedly in May and the other months are almost totally rejected as birth months, except for some activity April June and July.

Mating

Estrus (the period during which the female is sexually active), which is thought to last for between 2-12 days, peaks in late February. During this time, she makes loud meows at night, which can be heard by the local shepherds. On this basis, it is thought that snow leopards in Ladakh mate during late March to April and in Nepal during March. The narrow window during which the female is sexually active and the fact that all females are in estrus at the same time means that the male snow leopard cannot successfully inseminate a number females due to male competition, which in turn precludes the need for a male home range that is large and exclusive and which overlaps that of several females. As a result, the male home range overlaps more than usual with that of other males. Gestation (the period of pregnancy) is 94-103 days. Litter size is 1-5 snow leopard cubs. The average litter size is 2.2 snow leopard cubs.

Snow leopards do not live in the Arctic
People ask if snow leopards live in the Arctic. The answer is No.

Snow Leopard Cubs

Snow leopard cubs
Snow leopard cubs. Photo: Flickr.

Snow leopard cubs are normally born in a rock cave or crevice, which is almost all that is available in this barren habitat. In a charming manner, there is evidence that the mother’s molted fur forms the bedding for the den. A new born snow leopard cub weighs between 320 and 567 grams. They are born blind and well protected with fur. Thereafter the schedule of events can be presented as follows:

Age of CubsEvent2
Cubs are 7 days oldEyes open.
First week of a cubs lifeMother spends almost all her time with the cubs.
First few weeksCubs gain weight at 3-500 grams per week. At 5 weeks they weigh about 2.5-3 kg.
Cubs at about 4.5 weeks of ageCubs begin to play
5 weeks of ageCubs walk upright and start to eat solids. Mother leaves den more often.
2 months of ageCubs weigh about 4 kg
10 weeksCubs are weaned and weigh 6-6.5 kg.
Probably about 2-4 monthsCubs beginning to follow their mother out of the den.
2-6 monthsCubs begin to learn to hunt. A lot of this is play while the mother does the difficult stuff!
2-3 years of ageCubs become sexually mature.
About 4 years of ageAdult female gives birth to her first litter. Adult male as a father is of similar age.
In captivity at 21 years (src:The Snow Leopard Trust)Snow leopard can live to this age. In the wild it is more likely to be 10-13 years3.

 

In general, as for other large wild cats the cubs are dependent on their mother for a considerable time. And this means that the demands on the mother to hunt and kill prey are doubled when the cubs are at 2-6 months of age. This in turn demands a good local supply of prey. Or in the name of hunting efficiency, it can translate to killing farmers’ livestock causing the inevitable human/wild cat conflict to, ultimately, the cat’s detriment.

Snow leopard biting tail
Cub biting tail of parent. Picture: Snow Leopard Trust.

A danger that is ever present in either small wild cat populations and/or fragmented or “island” populations is inbreeding depression. As the snow leopard lives on mountain ranges divided by massive plains there is the potential for isolation but this seems to be avoided by adventurous males travelling long distances (up to about 600 kilometres) over unsuitable terrain to find their home range.

The video shows an adult snow leopard being released back into the wild after a GPS tracking collar had been fitted. It shows the magnificent appearance of this leopard including their beautiful tail which is, on my reckoning, the longest tail of all the cats both wild and domestic.

 
This page was built using Google Docs. Major source: Wild Cats of the World by the Sunquists, plus the Snow leopard Trust.

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