Scientists have for a long time classified all cats into a particular family called Felidae. The art or science of classification is called taxonomy and at the sub-family level there is the classification of Panthera which consists of all the larger cats, including lions, tigers, leopards and clouded leopards.
For many years they thought the snow leopard was not related to any of these because it cannot roar (and all the others can). In fact the differences between snow leopards and other large cats were thought to be substantial enough that snow leopards were placed in their own genus (Uncia). The snow leopard’s scientific name for many years was Uncia unica. But in 2010 studies found that the closest relative to the snow leopard is in fact the tiger (Panthera tigris).
This means that snow leopards are closely related to tigers on a close branch of the evolutionary tree and they have a common ancestor. It is believed they diverged from that ancestor about 2 million years ago which in evolutionary terms is not that long ago.
A genetics expert friend of ours in fact suggested you could say that tigers and snow leopards are cousins. This is interesting as the studies found that the relationship was closer between tigers and snow leopards than even snow leopards and common leopards (Panthera pardus). Scientists know that the snow leopard’s morphology (branch of biology dealing with the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features) is very different from leopards. As is their behaviour and ecology (the relationship with their environment.)
So much for the word leopard. Today snow leopards have a new classification to reflect this recently discovered relationship, which is Panthera uncia.
It is also strange to think the relationship is close because of course the habitat of tigers and snow leopards is so different. One lives in high mountains and the other in jungles. Although one tiger, the Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), does inhabit snow-covered regions.
So today, on July 29th, let’s celebrate the wonder and beauty of tigers and snow leopards and their habitat. Let’s keep them in our hearts and minds and support them in any way we can to ensure they remain in the wild for many generations to come.