The Ghost of the Mountains


Let’s begin with a little game.

Can you spot the adorable murder machines in the following images? If the pictures are two small to inspect in your browser, click on them to view a full-resolution version.

Answers will follow at the end of the article.


The images above were captured by a photographer named Ismail Shariff. Besides just flashes of gorgeous scenery, each one contains at least one creature renowned for its ability to blend into its environment: snow leopards.

Could you spot the kitties in these photos? If you had trouble, the number in the caption is how many leopards can be found in that image. The incredible part about these photos highlights the quality of the snow leopard’s camouflage. It’s easy to see how well these cats can merge into snowy areas, but they can seamlessly fit into non-white, rocky areas, too!

Not all of Shariff’s images of snow leopards take the macro, Where’s-Waldo? view. Sometimes he gets fortunate and snaps an image that captures how beautiful these creatures are:

Photo by Ismail Shariff
Photo by Ismail Shariff

Panthera uncia is native to the mountains of Central and South Asia.

The species name uncia features an interesting etymology. The snow leopard is sometimes colloquially referred to as an ounce. No, these cats are not oxymoronically named for a tiny unit – most weigh between 50 and 125 pounds – but from a strange evolution of language. Both ounce and uncia derive from the Old French word once, which meant “lynx.” Once is a degraded form of the word lonce, which arrived from an even older term, the Vulgar Latin lyncea, which means lynx-like. The step between once and lonce stems from a misunderstanding of the French language. En français, the definite article “the” is written in one of three forms: lela, or, if the article precedes a word that starts with a vowel sound, l’. At some point, someone heard the word lonce and translated it as l’once, or “the lynx.” The story is not yet finished. The snow leopard is not a lynx. At some point, “ounce” broadly became a word to describe any “wildcat,” including the lynx and the leopard. Later, for an unknown reason, the lynx and all the other wildcats became disassociated with the word “ounce,” yet the term stuck to the snow leopard. So, sometimes we call the snow leopard a lynx even though it’s not; and we don’t use the lynx-like word even on the lynx itself.

Got it? There will be a quiz at the end of the article.

The range of the snow leopard - graphic by BhagyaMani

Strangely, the scientific name for the snow leopard used to be Uncia uncia, as scientists believed the snow leopard to be distinct from Panthera – the big cats – and Felis – the wee cats. However, when genetic science ramped up, we learned what our eyes told us was probably correct: snow leopards are closely related to the other members of the genus Panthera. They are particularly close to tigers, with whom they form a sister group. Researchers believe snow leopards and tigers branched off genetically sometime between 2 and 5 million years ago.

Despite the similarity to tigers, the appearance of the snow leopard is unique. Its fur is white, cream, or grey with black spots. The pattern becomes larger toward the body and the tail of the cat, so large that we call them rosettes instead of spots. The fur is super thick, which allows the snow leopard to live where it does. Most of them prowl mountainsides with elevations between 9,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level, though we have witnessed them in the range of 20,000 feet. Their tails are enormous, often three to four feet in length. The tails are so massive that the cats use them as blankets to cover their faces when they sleep. Further adaptations to the cold include a layer of fur on the bottoms of their paws and relatively small ears, which keeps heat loss to a minimum.

Check out the massive tail on the snow leopard - photo by Irbis1983

Though gorgeous, these creatures are also fierce killing machines.

Their powerful legs allow them to leap up to 50 feet! They attack much larger prey, up to three times their weight, including blue sheep, Argali wild sheep, ibex, marmots, pikas, deer, and other small mammals. Though incredibly powerful, the snow leopard has not lost any of the common synonyms we associate with smaller cats: agility, speed, and persistence.

Check out this unimaginable footage of a snow leopard springing on an ibex, tumbling over a cliff, and emerging alive with a meal:

These cats are revered in Central Asia. On the official seal of Almaty and currency in Kazakhstan, to the Indigenous people of the regions, the snow leopard is the protector of the mountains.

Despite the sacred status, the snow leopard is in serious danger. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the felines as Vulnerable, one step below Endangered. Various studies estimate the number of individuals left in the wild to be between 7,500 to 10,000. In addition to the normal human pressures of poaching and loss of habitat, the “ghost of the mountain,” so named for the solitary nature of the animal, does not produce many young when mating.

Some of our better angels are diligently working on conservation efforts for the big cats, however. Most of the nations in which the snow leopard resides have protected them; these countries convened the Global Snow Leopard Forum to work on methods to save the cats. Multiple organizations have emerged with the purpose of preserving a future for these cats, including the Snow Leopard Network and the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Pretty kitty in the snow - photo by Bernard Landgraf

Hopefully, we work toward a planet where humans and snow leopards can coexist.

The world would be a lot less beautiful without these kitties around:

Snow leopard cubs - photo by Dingopup

I promised a quiz about the etymology of “ounce.” I’m letting you off the hook.

Here are your answers to the snow leopard hide-and-seek, though. The last two are tough!

Further Reading and Exploration

Snow Leopard Network – Official Website

Snow Leopard Conservancy – Official Website


Action for snow leopards – IUCN

Ismail Shariff – Official Website

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