Because snow leopards successfully live at such high altitudes (3500m to 6500m) for many years researchers thought the haemoglobin of this species was in some way adapted so it could carry more oxygen than the haemoglobins of other big cats.
But a study published today in the Journal of Experimental Biology revealed that is not the case.
Research by an international team from universities in USA and Denmark looked at blood samples from African lions, a tiger, one leopard, four snow leopards, a panther and some domestic cats. It showed snow leopard blood is no better prepared for the extreme challenges of high altitudes than other big cats and even our domestic cats.
In other words “the snow leopards’ haemoglobin is equally as inefficient as the haemoglobins of all other big cats and the haemoglobins are structurally and functionally almost identical to those of house cats.” However, the researchers believe snow leopards compensate for the poor oxygen capacity of their blood by simply breathing harder and thus survive well in the high altitude habitat.
One of the authors of the study, Jan Janecka from Duquesne University, USA said, ‘We still don’t know how snow leopards adapt (to life at high altitudes). ‘Our study raised more questions than it answered.’
More in the article by Kathryn Knight.
Read the original research article here – “Genetically based low oxygen affinities of felid hemoglobins: lack of biochemical adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia in the snow leopard.”.