They’re sleek, but not as sleek as the cheetah, and they’re strong, but not as strong as the lion. They’re successful in the wild for being very secretive, making it hard for prey and poachers to find them. So which kitty could I possibly be referring to? (Drum roll) The Leopard!
What is the leopard? How are they unique? Once upon a time, people (notably the famous Carl Linnaeus) used to believe that the leopard was a cross between a lion and a panther. In Latin this would create the name Leo-pard (lion= “leo” and panther= “pard” in Latin). Today they are considered their own species from the generic rank of Panthera and not just a subspecies. The last common ancestor of leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, snow and clouded leopards is believed to be ~6.37 million years ago.
Let’s compare the leopard with other cats just to get them straight, as their similar patterns and builds can be confusing:
1) Leopards vs Jaguars: leopards will not naturally be found near jaguars, so this is one easy way to recognize them in the wild based solely on geography. (Jaguars are found in South and Central America). The jaguar has these polygonal rosettes with small spots inside of them, while the leopard has rounder and smaller rosettes. (Rosettes, by the way, are a “rose-like” marking that forms on the skin and fur. They can appear as blotches or spots.) In comparing their build, leopards are a little bit smaller than jagauars.
2) Leopards vs Cheetahs: cheetahs and leopards, in some regions, do overlap geographically. But they are fairly easy to tell apart being that cheetahs have round solid spots (except the extremely rare king cheetah) that are evenly distributed across the body in comparison to the description above of the leopards’ rosettes. Also, leopards are more muscular and have a more dominant frame to that of the more delicate, willowy cheetah.
Leopards can survive in a world of extremes: from the grasslands, woodlands,and forests of eastern and central Africa/sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent/Southeast Asia/China to the temperate forests of the Russian Far East that reach temperatures in winter as low as -13 degrees F (or -25 C)
But does anyone know what colour leopards can be? The most common is the one at the top of this post, which is the African leopard. There are several subspecies of leopard that are actually critically endangered. These endangered cats range in colour patterns and variation. But have you ever seen a black leopard, also known as a melanistic leopard? What you may not know, if you have seen or heard of them, is that not only is the fur of the melantistic leopard black, but if you shaved off their fur (let’s say because you needed to do surgery on one), you’d find that their skin is black, too! In most areas the melanistic leopard is very rare, as this “black-skinned” trait is the recessive allele (which is a gene, like blue eyes in humans, that will only appear if both parents provide the DNA to their baby for their “black-skinned” trait) to the more common golden/white-bellied appearance. In forests, mountainous regions, and in Asia the melanistic leopard has a higher frequency. In fact, ~50% of leopards in the Malay Peninsula are black. These melanistic leopards are sometimes called “black panthers” erroneously. In fact, other species of wild cat, such as the jaguar and serval, also possess “melanistic” alternatives. Big Cat Rescue saved a melanistic leopard, Jumanji. This little star in the operant conditioning programme even caught the attention of People Magazine, which wonderfully exposed more awareness for big cats (and wildlife as a whole).
Why are leopards particularly efficacious in the wild compared to other big cats? They not only are able to hide well from other predators, but they can compete for food extremely well. While large predators such as lions, tigers, spotted hyenas, and African wild dogs eat larger prey, leopards subsist on smaller mammals, medium-sized antelope, birds, reptiles, and other carnivores such as cheetahs and bat-eared foxes. They are efficient when exerting energy to capture prey due to their secret-agent stealth: they can stalk behind their soon-to-be-lunch up to 2 metres (!) before making their mad, cold-blooded kill.
In some regions leopards (especially subspecies) are dwindling due to (cough) humans that are inducing habitat loss, killing them off as nuisances when they attack their livestock, and “sport” hunting them down. In fact, leopards are considered one of the “Big Five” most highly rated prey in Africa. The other four in this list are lions, buffalo, elephant, and rhino. Fortunately, because people so love them, tourism is helping keep them protected. Thus national parks in places such as Namibia are being built to increase conservation efforts. So keep it up, wild lovers! It’s through the individual that culminates the results we see!
More to come from the wild!