8 things you may not know about Leopards

It’s May the third so this can mean only one thing, it’s International Leopard Day!

Did you know there are eight sub species of leopards? These truly majestic animals are extremely adaptable, living in a variety of habitats across Africa and Asia. They are highly efficient and versatile predators that play a crucial role in ecosystems, and as such, vital to the health of our planet.

To celebrate these incredible animals, we have shone the spotlight on these stunning big cats and cherry picked eight facts that you may not know about leopards. We hope you enjoy!

No 1. The truth behind the name.

The name leopard comes from the ancient Greek words leon and pard which translate as lion cat. Throughout time the letter “n” became lost and as a result leo and pard joined to create the name we are familiar with today!

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No 2. Not really a leopard.

While it is true that Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) belong to the same genus (Panthera) as Indian leopards (Panthera pardus fusca), research has found that these magnificent big cats are actually closer related to tigers and therefore, not listed as one of the eight subspecies of leopard. These beautiful predators are affectionally known as the “ghost of the mountains” due to their elusive nature.

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Image by Kieran at Flickr 

No 3.  Save some for later.

Many a photographer and filmmaker have captured the iconic sight of a leopard high up a tree with their prey stored securely beside it, but what is this behaviour called? And why do they do it? When leopards take their kill up a tree, they “cache” it, the reason being, to move their hard-earned prize safely out of reach of scavengers. Interestingly, studies have found that male leopards cache their kill more frequently than females, this is especially prominent when ground cover is lacking during the dry season.

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No 4. Fur variations.

It would appear, the colouration of leopard fur varies in accordance to habitat. Those living in dry, arid habitats are more likely to have pale coats with yellow-brown colouration, compared to a grey like colour in cooler locations. In contrast, leopards living in the savannah are reddish-brown in colour and rainforest leopards have golden coat, with those living in mountainous terrain, darker still.

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No 5. An ally to crop owners.

There is strong research to suggest that top predators, such as leopards, play a vital role in controlling the populations of crop raiding species and in doing so, help to reduce crop damage. In areas where large predator populations have become extinct, baboon populations (a known crop raider) have increased. Statistical modelling has revealed potentially disastrous implications for crop owners should large predators disappear, allowing baboons to potentially spend almost half of their time crop raiding. 

No 6. The perfect opportunistic predator. 

In sub Saharan Africa, an incredible total of ninety-two different prey items have been consumed by leopards.  These include invertebrates, small birds, reptiles, fish and large mammals.

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No 7. The science behind the black panther.

Images of black panthers never fail to capture the imagination, but why and how do they get their appearance? When a ‘black panther’ is sighted in Africa or Asia it naturally causes an enormous amount of excitement, for what this animal truly is, is something exceedingly rare and incredibly special. It is a leopard that has experienced the genetic mutation, melanism. Melanism takes place when an allele or alleles increase the percentage of melanins (dark pigments) in an animal’s characteristics. The result is a totally black appearance, hence, the black panther. This mutation does not occur just in leopards, it is possible in the Americas to find jaguars (panthera onca) with this mutation and the result is equally as strikingly beautiful. Interestingly, while in Africa occurrences of black panthers are rare, in contrast in the humid forests of Malaysia and Java, reports of the genetic mutation occur more commonly.

So, what are the pros and cons of this mutation? There have been suggestions as to possible advantages of being all black. These include being able to absorb sunlight at a greater rate, act as a deterrent to parasites and being able to blend it more effectively with the darkness of light.  Intriguingly however, there has been no difference recorded in night-time activity between cats with and without melanism.

It has been suggested that a potential negative from having an all-black coat could be increased difficulties in communicating with other members of the same species. The mutation covers the white patches of their ears and tails that can convey a variety of silent messages. These include signalling warnings of danger to cubs, signalling there may be an opportunity to predate and of course, finding a mate to reproduce with. This research suggests that this could be the reasoning why the legendary black panther is indeed so rare.

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Image by Tambako the Jaguar at Flickr

No 8. The magnificent eight. 

Think there are only one or possibly two species of leopard? Think again! There are in fact eight sub species of leopard and they inhabit an incredible diversity of habitats from arid deserts to grasslands and from rainforests to the staggering heights of the Himalayas and Mt. Kenya. They have found ways to adapt and survive, and long may that continue, for our planet would be a much poorer place without them. The eight sub species are as follows;

  • African Leopard (Panthera paradus, paradus)

  • Persian Leopard Panthera pardus tulliana, 

  • Indian Leopard Panthera pardus fusca,

  • Sri Lankan Leopard Panthera pardus kotiya, 

  • Indochinese Leopard Panthera pardus delacouri, 

  • Amur Leopard Panthera pardus orientalis, 

  • Javan Leopard Panthera pardus melas 

  • Arabian Leopard Panthera pardus nimr.

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These truly majestic animals are incredibly adaptable living in a variety of habitats across Africa and Asia and are highly efficient and versatile predators that play a crucial role in ecosystems and in doing so, are vital to the health of our planet.

We have also been talking to our friend and supporter Peter Allison about all things leopard, it’s an interesting and eye opening conversation. You can find our video interview below. 

 

You can find Peter's books on Amazon here