|The leopard (Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera, along with the tiger, lion, and jaguar. Leopards that are melanistic, either all-black or very dark in coloration, are known colloquially as Black Panthers.|
Once distributed across southern Eurasia and Africa, from Korea to South Africa and Spain, it has disappeared from much of its former range and now chiefly occurs in subsaharan Africa. There are fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, Malaysia, and western China. Despite the loss of range and continued population declines, the cat remains a least concern species; its numbers are greater than that of the other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.
The species' success owes in part to its opportunistic hunting behavior and its adaptability to a variety of habitats. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can catch and ranges from rainforest to desert. Its ecological role resembles that of the similarly-sized cougar in the Americas. Physically, the spotted cat most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is of lighter build.
The generic component of its scientific designation, Panthera pardus, is often presumed to derive from Greek pan- ("all") and their ("beast"), but this may be a folk etymology. Although it came into English through the classical languages, panthera is probably of East Asian origin, meaning "the yellowish animal," or "whitish-yellow".
One of many spotted cats, a leopard may be mistaken for a cheetah or a jaguar. The leopard has rosettes rather than cheetah's simple spots, but they lack internal spots, unlike the jaguar. The leopard is larger and less lanky than the cheetah but smaller than the jaguar. The leopard's black, irregular rosettes serve as camouflage. They are circular in East Africa but tend to be square in southern Africa.
Particularly in mountainous areas and rain forests occurs a melanistic morph of the leopard, the black panther. The black color is heritable and caused by only one recessive gene locus. In some regions, for example on the Malayan Peninsula up to 50% of all leopards are black. In Africa black leopards seem to be most common in the Ethiopian Highlands.
Biology and behavior
Along with climbing, they are strong swimmers but not as fond of water as tigers; for example, leopards will not normally lie in water. They are mainly nocturnal but can be seen at any time of day and will even hunt during daytime on overcast days. In regions where they are hunted, nocturnal behavior is more common. These cats are solitary, avoiding one another. However, three or four are sometimes seen together. Hearing and eyesight are the strongest of these cats' senses and are extremely acute. Olfaction is relied upon as well, but not for hunting. When making a threat, leopards stretch their backs, depress their ribcages between their shoulder blades so they stick out, and lower their heads (similar to domestic cats). During the day they may lie in bush, on rocks, or in a tree with their tails hanging below the treetops and giving them away.
Diet and hunting
The leopard stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and strangles its throat with a quick bite. Leopards often hide their kills in dense vegetation or take them up trees, and are capable of carrying animals up to three times their own weight this way. Storing carcasses up trees keeps them away from other predators such as spotted hyenas, jackals, tigers and lions, though the latter will occasionally be successful in climbing and fetching the leopard kills.
One survey of nearly 30 research papers found preferred prey weights of 10 to 40 kgs, with 25 kg most preferred. Along with impala and chital, a preference for bushbuck and common duiker was found. Other prey selection factors include a preference for prey in small herds, in dense habitat, and those that afford the predator a low risk of injury.
Although most leopards will tend to avoid humans, people are occasionally targeted as prey. Most healthy leopards prefer wild prey to humans, but cats who are injured, sickly or struggling with a shortage of regular prey often turn to hunting people and may become habituated to it. In the most extreme cases, both in India, a leopard dubbed "the Leopard of Rudraprayag" is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the infamous leopardess called "Panar Leopard" killed over 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus being made unable to hunt normal prey. The "Leopard of Rudraprayag" and the "Panar Leopard" were both killed by the legendary hunter Jim Corbett. Man-eating leopards are considered bold and commonly enter human settlements for prey, moreso than their lion and tiger counterparts. However because they can subsist on small prey and are less dependent on large prey, leopards are less likely to turn to man-eating than either lions or tigers.
Social structure and home range
The leopard is solitary and, aside from mating, interactions between individuals appear to be infrequent. Aggressive encounters have been observed, however. Two of five males studied over a period of a year at a game reserve in South Africa died, both violently. One was initially wounded in a male-male territorial battle over a carcass; taken in by researchers, it was released after a successful convalescence only to be killed by a different male a few months later. A second was killed by another predator, possibly a spotted hyena. A third of the five was badly wounded in intra-specific fighting, but recovered.
Distribution and habitat
Other subspecies under the old taxonomic division:
Today usually included in The Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor):
Today usually included in The Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)
Prehistoric extinct subspecies
In a paper about panthers and ounces of Asia, Reginald Innes Pocock used a photo of a leopard skin from southern India; it had large black-rimmed blotches, each containing a number of dots and it resembled the pattern of a jaguar or clouded leopard. Another of Pocock's leopard skins from southern India had the normal rosettes broken up and fused and so much additional pigment that the animal looked like a black leopard streaked and speckled with yellow.
Most other color morphs of leopards are known only from paintings or museum specimens. There have been very rare examples where the spots of a normal black leopard have coalesced to give a jet black leopard with no visible markings. Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. The spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to largely obscure the background color. They may form swirls and, in some places, solid black areas. Unlike a true black leopard the tawny background color is visible in places. One pseudo-melanistic leopard had a tawny orange coat with coalescing rosettes and spots, but white belly with normal black spots (like a black-and-tan dog).
There is, however, a peculiar dark phase in South Africa, a specimen of which was obtained in 1885 in hilly land covered with scrub-jungle, near Grahamstown. The ground-color of this animal was a rich tawny, with an orange tinge; but the spots, instead of being of the usual rosette-like form, were nearly all small and solid, like those on the head of an ordinary leopard; while from the top of the head to near the root of the tail the spots became almost confluent, producing the appearance of a broad streak of black running down the back. A second skin had the black area embracing nearly the whole of the back and flanks, without showing any trace of the spots, while in those portions of the skin where the latter remained they were of the same form as in the first specimen. Two other specimens are known; the whole four having been obtained from the Albany district. These dark-colored South African leopards differ from the black leopards of the northern and eastern parts of Africa and Asia in that while in the latter the rosette-like spots are always retained and clearly visible, in the former the rosettes are lost as, indeed, is to a considerable extent often the case in ordinary African leopards - and all trace of spots disappears from the blacker portions of the skin.
Another pseudo-melanistic leopard skin was described in 1915 by Holdridge Ozro Collins who had purchased it in 1912. It had been killed in Malabar, India that same year.
The wide black portion, which glistens like the sheen of silk velvet, extends from the top of the head to the extremity of the tail entirely free from any white or tawny hairs
In the tiger, the stripes are black, of a uniform character, upon a tawny background, and they run in parallel lines from the centre of the back to the belly. In this skin, the stripes are almost golden yellow, without the uniformity and parallelism of the tiger characteristics, and they extend along the sides in labyrinthine graceful curls and circles, several inches below the wide shimmering black continuous course of the back. The extreme edges around the legs and belly are white and spotted like the skin of a leopard
The skin is larger than that of a leopard but smaller than that of a full grown tiger.
In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum exhibited the mounted skin of an unusual Somali leopard. The pelt was richly decorated with an intricate pattern of swirling stripes, blotches, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different from a spotted leopard, but similar to a King Cheetah hence the modern cryptozoology term King Leopard. Between 1885 and 1934, six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa. This indicated a mutation in the local leopard population. Other King Leopards have been recorded from Malabar in southwestern India. Shooting for trophies may have wiped out these populations.
Leopards and humans
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