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All Things Leopard.
Information and pictures on Leopards.
Educational, Zoological, and Classification info.



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 Leopards 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.

Originally, it was thought that a leopard was a hybrid between a lion and a panther, and the leopard's common name derives from this belief; leo is the Greek and Latin word for lion (Greek leon, λέων) and pard is an old term meaning panther. In fact, a "panther" can be any of several species of large felid. In North America, panther means cougar and in South America a panther is a jaguar. Elsewhere in the world a panther is a leopard. Early naturalists distinguished between leopards and panthers not by color (a common misconception), but by the length of the tail, panthers having longer tails than leopards. It was one of the many species originally described, as Felis pardus, by Linnaeus in his 18th century work, Systema Naturae.

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".

Physical characteristics
Leopards The leopard is an agile and graceful predator. Although smaller than the other members of Panthera, the leopard is still able to take large prey given a massive skull that well utilizes powerful jaw muscles. Its body is comparatively long for a cat and its legs short. Head and body length is between 90 and 190 cm, the tail reaches 60 to 110cm. Shoulder height is 45 to 80 cm. Males are considerably larger than females and weigh 37 to 90 kg compared to 28 to 60 kg for females. Exceptionally large males of 90kg have been recorded in parts of the range, (e.g. Sri lanka) where lion and tiger have been absent for a long period.

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.
Leopards have been reported to reach 21 years of age in captivity.

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
Graceful and stealthy, leopards are famous for their ability to go undetected. They are good, agile climbers, but cannot get down from a tree headfirst, because they do not have the ankle flexibility - the only two cats that do are the Margay and the Clouded Leopard.

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
Leopards are opportunistic hunters. Although mid-sized animals are preferred, the leopard will eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg male giant elands. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates and monkeys, but rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish are also eaten. In fact, they hunt about 90 different species of animals. A solitary dog is a potential prey for leopards, although a pack of dogs can tree or drive off a leopard. In Africa, mid-sized antelopes provide a majority of the leopard's prey, especially impala and Thomson's gazelles. In Asia the leopard preys on deer such as chitals and muntjacs as well as various Asian antelopes and Ibex.

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 Leopards 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.

A male may follow a female who catches his attention. Eventually fighting for reproductive rights can take place. Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round (India and Africa) or seasonally during January to February (Manchuria and Siberia). The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6-7 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2-3, but infant mortality is high and mothers are not commonly seen with more than 1-2 cubs. The pregnant females find a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to give birth and make a den. Cubs open their eyes after a period of 10 days. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also more gray in color with less defined spots. Around three months the infants begin to follow the mother out on hunts. At one year of age leopard young can probably fend for themselves but they remain with the mother for 18-24 months.

Social structure and home range
Studies of leopard home range size have tended to focus on protected areas, which may have led to skewed data; as of the mid-1980s, only 13% of the leopard range actually fell within a protected area. In their IUCN survey of the literature, Nowell and Jackson suggest male home territories vary between 30-78 square kilometers, but just 15-16 kmē for females. Research in a conservation area in Kenya shows similar territory sizes and sex differential: 32.8 kmē ranges for males, on average, and 14 kmē for females. In Nepal, somewhat larger male ranges have been found at about 48 kmē, while female ranges are in-keeping with other research, at 17 kmē; female home territories were seen to decrease to just five to seven kmē when young cubs were present, while the sexual difference in range size seemed to be in positive proportion to overall increase. However, significant variations in size of home territories have been suggested across the leopard's range. In Namibia, for instance, research that focused on spatial ecology in farmlands outside of protected areas found ranges that were consistently above 100 kmē, with some more than 300 kmē; admitting that their data were at odds with others', the researchers also suggested little or no sexual variation in the size of territories. Virtually all sources suggest that males do have larger ranges. There seems to be little or no overlap in territory amongst males, although overlap exists between the sexes; one radio-collar analysis in the Ivory Coast found a female home range completely enclosed within a male's.

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
As of 1996, the leopard had the largest distribution of any wild cat, although populations before and since have shown a declining trend and are fragmented outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The IUCN notes that within sub-Saharan Africa the species is "still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats" where other large cats have disappeared, but that populations in North Africa may be extinct. In Asia, data on distribution are mixed: populations in Southwest and Central Asia are small and fragmented; in the northeast portion of the range, they are critically endangered; and in Indian, Southeast Asia, and China, the cat is still relatively abundant. Leopards also like to live in grasslands, woodlands and riverside forests.

Scientific classification
Kingdom:    Animalia
Phylum:       Chordata
Class:         Mammalia
Order:         Carnivora
Family:        Felidae
Genus:        Panthera
Species:     P. pardus
Binomial name
Panthera pardus: Linnaeus, 1758

It has been suggested that there may be as many as 30 extant subspecies of the Leopard. However, modern taxonomic analyses have demonstrated that only 8/9 subspecies are valid.

  • Indo-Chinese Leopard (Panthera pardus delacouri), Mainland Southeast Asia
  • Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), India, South eastern Pakistan, Nepal, Northern Bangladesh
  • North China Leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), China
  • Sri Lanka Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), Sri Lanka
  • Java Leopard (Panthera pardus melas), Java
  • Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), Russian Far East, Northern China, Korea
  • African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus), Africa
  • Persian Leopard or Iranian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor), Southwest Asia
  • Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), Arabian Peninsula; Often included in the Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor)

Other subspecies under the old taxonomic division:
Today usually included in the African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)

  • Barbary Leopard (Panthera pardus panthera)
  • Cape Leopard (Panthera pardus melanotica)
  • Central African Leopard (Panthera pardus shortridgei)
  • Congo Leopard (Panthera pardus ituriensis)
  • East African Leopard (Panthera pardus suahelica)
  • Eritrean Leopard (Panthera pardus antinorii)
  • Somalian Leopard (Panthera pardus nanopardus)
  • Ugandan Leopard ((Panthera pardus chui)
  • West African Leopard (Panthera pardus reichinowi)
  • West African Forest Leopard (Panthera pardus leopardus)
  • Zanzibar Leopard (Panthera pardus adersi)

Today usually included in The Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor):

  • Anatolian Leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana)
  • Baluchistan Leopard (Panthera pardus sindica)
  • Caucasus Leopard (Panthera pardus ciscaucasica)
  • Central Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus dathei)
  • Sinai Leopard (Panthera pardus jarvisi)

Today usually included in The Indian Leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)

  • Kashmir Leopard (Panthera pardus millardi)
  • Nepal Leopard (Panthera pardus pernigra)

Prehistoric extinct subspecies

  • European leopard (Panthera pardus sickenbergi)

Variant Coloration
A pseudo-melanistic leopard has a normal background color, but its excessive markings have coalesced so that its back seems to be an unbroken expanse of black. In some specimens, the area of solid black extends down the flanks and limbs; only a few lateral streaks of golden-brown indicate the presence of normal background color. Any spots on the flanks and limbs that have not merged into the mass of swirls and stripes are unusually small and discrete, rather than forming rosettes. The face and under parts are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.

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.
 - Lydekker, R. (1910), Harmsworth Natural History

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.
 - Collins, Holdridge Ozro(1915)

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
Leopards have been known to humans since antiquity and have featured in the art, mythology and folklore of many countries where they have occurred historically, such as Ancient Greece, Persia and Rome, as well as some where they haven't such as England. The modern use of the leopard as an emblem for sport or coat of arms is much more restricted to Africa, though numerous products worldwide have used the name.

In captivity
Leopards were kept in a menagerie established by King John at the Tower of London in the 13th century; around 1235 three animals were given to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

The best location to see leopards in Africa is in the Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve in South Africa, where leopards are habituated to safari vehicles and are seen on a daily basis at very close range. In Asia, one can see leopards Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, which has the world's highest density of wild leopards, but even here sightings are by no means guaranteed because more than half the park is closed off to the public, allowing the animals to thrive. Another good destination for leopard watching is the recently reopened Wilpattu National Park, also in Sri Lanka. In India the leopards are found all over the country and there is maximum man-animal conflict here only as they are spread everywhere. The best places in India can be national parks in Madhya Pradesh and in Uttarakhand.


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