LEOPARD : A spotted predator

Like all the members of Felidae family, Panthera genus to which leopards belong has been subject to a great deal of modification and debate, and the precise relations among the four species (including the snow and the clouded leopard) have not been effectively resolved. Experts are of the opinion that the basal divergence amongst the family members took place somewhere around 11 million (1.10 crore) years ago. The last common ancestor of today’s leopard, snow leopard, tiger, lion, jaguar and clouded leopard is believed to have existed about 6.37 million (63.70 lakh) years ago.

Though some experts consider snow leopard as the only species within its genus Uncia uncia, more recent research do not agree with it. In a mitochondrial DNA study, Yu and Zhang advocate, leopards are most closely related to snow leopards and place the latter as the fifth species of Panthera, as P. uncia. Johnson et al. (2006) also back this placement. They claim the snow leopard is most closely aligned with tiger. Leopard is held to have deviated from the Panthera lineage subsequent to these two species, but before jaguars and lions. Past researches tend to suggest that the leopard is most closely related to lions and/or the jaguars. Leopard is also considered the type species of the genus Panthera.

Cats under genus Panthera are believed to have appeared in Asia, with ancestors of leopard and other cats subsequently migrating into Africa. Fossils of early leopard ancestors have been found in East Africa and South Asia from the Pleistocene of 2 to 3.5 Ma (Mega annum — one million (1,000,000) years). The modern leopard is suggested to have evolved in Africa 470,000–825,000 years ago and radiated across Asia 170,000–300,000 years ago.


There was a time when as many as 27 subspecies of leopard were suggested. The number of subspecies swelled to this proportion during the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century and that of Reginald Pocock in the early 20th century. In 1996, Miththapala et al. revised this list and squeezed it to just eight based on DNA analysis. Uphyrina et al. although, agreed with Miththapala et al. in 2001, but split out a ninth subspecies – the Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr). The latter researchers say the number might be an underestimation because of limited sampling of African leopards. These recent taxonomies have been questioned, for example, by the Anatolian Leopard Foundation, which claims that leopards found in Anatolia are a distinct species.

The subspecies recognized by Uphyrina et al. are:

1. Indian leopard (P. p. fusca) — habitat Indian Subcontinent.

2. Sri Lankan leopard (P. p. kotiya) — habitat Sri Lanka.

3. Persian leopard (P. p. saxicolor) — earlier described as Caucasian leopard (P. p. ciscaucasica), habitat Central Asia: the Caucasus, Turkmenistan and northern Iran.

4. Amur leopard (P. p. orientalis) — habitat Russian Far East, Korean Peninsula, and Northeast China.

5. Indo-Chinese leopard (P. p. delacouri) — habitat Mainland Southeast Asia.

6. Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr) — habitat Arabian Peninsula.

7. North Chinese leopard (P. p. japonensis) — habitat Northern China.

8. African leopard (P. p. pardus) — habitat Sub-Saharan Africa.

9. Javan leopard (P. p. melas) — habitat Java, Indonesia.

Morphological analysis of characters of leopard skulls implies the validity of two more subspecies:

10. Baluchistan leopard (P. p. sindica) — habitat Pakistan, and possibly some parts of Iran and Afghanistan.

11. Anatolian leopard (P. p. tulliana) — habitat Western Turkey

A versatile cat

Member of the Felidae family, leopard (Panthera pardus) is the smallest of the four “big cats” in the genus Panthera. The other three being tiger, lion and jaguar. Once distributed across eastern and southern Asia and Africa and from Siberia to South Africa, leopard’s range of distribution has decreased radically because of hunting and loss of habitat. Now it is confined mainly in sub-Saharan Africa; there are also fragmented populations in India, Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indochina. Due to its declining range and population the animal has been listed as a “Near Threatened” species by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

As compared to other members of the Felidae family, leopards have fairly shorter legs and a long body with a large skull. They look similar in appearance to jaguars because both the cats have rosettes marked fur, but leopards are smaller and more slightly built. Leopard’s rosettes are smaller and more densely packed, and usually do not have central spots like the jaguars have. Both these cats can be melanistic (completely black or very dark) and are known as black panthers.

Unlike tigers and lions, leopards have a remarkable ability to adapt and survive under various climatic conditions in different habitats. This substantiates their wide distribution from Africa to southern Asia. This animal’s success in the wild is in part due to its opportunistic hunting behavior and adaptability to habitats, stealth, ability to run at speed of up to 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph) and unparalleled capability to climb trees even while carrying heavy carcass. They eat virtually any animal they hunt down and catch. Their habitat ranges from desert terrains to rainforests.


In ancient times it was believed that a leopard is a hybrid of lion and panther. This also reflects in its name, which is a Greek compound of words leon (lion) and pardos (male panther). Interesting part is that the Greek word is related to Sanskrit’s prdaku (snake, tiger, and panther). Panther is a general term that can mean any of the several species of large felids: in Americas the term can refer to jaguars and cougars, while everywhere else it is used in the case of leopards.

The generic component of its modern scientific name, Panthera pardus, is derived from Latin via Greek pánther. It is believed instead to derived from an Indo-Iranian word meaning “white-yellow, pale”; in Sanskrit, this word’s reflex was pandara, from which was derived pundárika (“tiger”, among other things), then borrowed into Greek.


Leopards are often confused with two other spotted cats, cheetahs and the jaguars, but the fact is the patterns of spots in each species are different. While Cheetahs have evenly spread simple spots, jaguars have smaller spots inside the polygonal rosettes. Leopards normally have smaller and rounder rosettes than those of the jaguars. In addition to this leopards are larger and much more muscular as compared to cheetahs, but slightly smaller and more lightly built if compared with the jaguars.

Smaller than other members of Panthera genus leopards are highly agile and depend on stealth to hunt. Despite being small in size this predator is quite capable of taking larger prey given its massive skull that well utilizes powerful jaw muscles. Animal’s tail reaches 60 to 110 cm (24 to 43 in), whereas head and body length is between 125 and 165 cm (49 and 65 in). Body is comparatively long for a cat and the legs are short. Shoulder can reach up to 80 cm (31 inches) in height. The muscles attached to the scapula are exceptionally strong, which enhances the cat’s ability to climb trees.

Greatly diverse in size, male leopards are about 30 per cent larger compared to females, weighing between 30 to 91 kg (66 to 200 lb). Females can be 23 to 60 kg (51 to 130 lb) in weight. Large males have been documented in Kruger National park in South Africa; however, males found in the coastal mountains of the country are much smaller in size. This variation is believed to be the result of quality and availability of prey species in both the habitats. Smaller sized leopards have also been reported from the deserts of the Middle East.

Apart from the size leopards also show a great diversity in physical appearance, particularly because of the large variation in color coat and rosette patterns. Its rosettes are circular in East Africa but tend to be a bit squarer in southern Africa and larger in Asian populations. Yellow coat tends to be paler and cream colored in desert populations, more gray in colder habitats, and of a darker golden shade in rainforests. Overall, the fur under the belly tends to be lighter in color and of a softer, downy type. Solid black spots in place of open rosettes are generally seen along the face, limbs and underbelly.

Old theory on formation of leopard’s spots validated

Validating a theory on formation of leopard’s spots and tiger’s stripes that famous code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turning put forth in 1950s, researchers at King’s College London have provided the first experimental evidence in the early 2012 to show how tiger stripes or leopard spots are formed. Turning had proposed that regular repeating patterns in biological systems are generated by a pair of morphogens that work together as an ‘activator’ and ‘inhibitor’. Researchers studied the development of the regularly-spaced ridges found in the roof of the mouth in mice.

Carrying out experiments in mouse embryos, the team identified the pair of morphogens working together to influence where each ridge will be formed. These chemicals controlled each other’s expression, activating and inhibiting production and therefore controlling the generation of the ridge pattern.

They showed that when these morphogens’ activity is increased or decreased, the pattern of the ridges in the mouth palate is affected in ways predicted by Turing’s equations.

About Alan Turning

Alan Turning (pix)Turing was one of the great unsung heroes of World War II. He broke the German military’s secret codes – created using the famous Enigma machine – that helped British Intelligence stay one step ahead of Hitler, allowing the Navy to defeat his U-boats and win the Battle of the Atlantic.

Turing’s work even laid the foundation for the creation of modern computers. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. ‘Everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine,’ it said.

But Turing was shamefully ignored by the British Establishment, and then killed himself in 1954 after being convicted of being a homosexual and forced to undergo hormone therapy.

Variant coloration

Melanistic morph of leopards is usually found in mountainous areas and rain forests. The black color is genetic and caused by recessive gene loci. This kind of leopard is particularly common on the Malayan Peninsula. Early reports suggested that up to half of all leopards found there are black, but a 2007 camera-trap study in Taman Negara National Park found that all specimens were melanistic. Such animals are commonly referred to as black panthers. This term is not exclusive to leopards, but also applies to melanistic jaguars.

There is no consensus on benefits derived from melanism, but it is commonly believed that it serves as an effective camouflage tool in the rainforest habitat. Genetic research has found four independent origins for melanism in cats, suggesting that there may be an adaptive advantage. Another possibility is that the color variation is a relic adaptation to an epidemic; genes causing melanism can also affect the immune system.

Interesting part is that the black leopard or panther are much less common in Africa as melanism is not an adaptive advantage in savanna habitat as the dark color of the animal provides poor camouflage and makes hunting difficult. On the other hand, in dense forests of Ethiopian Highlands such leopards are much more common. Dark color helps the animal in camouflaging as lesser sunlight reaches the forest floor. Here as many as one in five leopards may be melanistic.

Pseudo-melanism (abundism) is also found in leopards. Such animals have normal background color, but the spots are more densely packed than the normal and merge to obscure the golden-brown background. 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 under-parts and the face are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards.

Expert tree climber

Leopard is a highly agile animal and can easily climb trees. For leopards trees are real safe haven. During the day they usually rest on tree branches so that other big cats, like lions and tigers, can not disturb them. To avoid disturbance and danger they usually drag their kill up the trees and hang them there. This keeps the food secured from the food stealers like tigers, lions, hyenas and other big animals. Leopard’s power is such that it can carry the victim up to three times its own weight to the tree. It is the only big cat known to carry dead prey up onto a tree. Leopards descend from trees headfirst. They are powerful swimmers, although not as strong as some other big cats, such as tigers. Their running speed is also fairly good and can reach over 58 kilometers per hour (36 mph). They can leap over six meters (20 ft) horizontally and jump up to 3 meters (9.8 ft) vertically. Leopards are known for producing number of sounds, including grunts, roars, growls, meows and “sawing”.

Contrary to common belief that leopards are nocturnal hunters, fact is their activity level may vary depending on the habitat and the type of prey they hunt. Studies have indicated that rainforest leopards are more likely to be diurnal and crepuscular. Forest leopards are also more specialized in prey selection and exhibit seasonal differences in activity patterns.

Diet and hunting

Leopards are highly versatile and opportunistic predators. When they are in open savannah, they are most successful during night and while in forested areas where there is advantage of being hidden by dense foliage and breaking shadows they may hunt during the day. They stalk their prey silently. At the last moment pounce upon it, grab the throat and strangle it with a quick and powerful bite.

The dietary requirements of leopards are comparatively flexible. They feed on a great variety of prey. Although animals of medium size are preferred, if situation demands they can eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg (1,984 lb) male giant elands, a member of the antelope family found in savannah and plains of East and Southern Africa. It is also the largest antelope in whole of Africa. Leopard’s diet usually consists of monkeys and ungulates, but amphibians, reptiles, rodents, birds, fish and even insects are also eaten. In African continent, medium-sized antelopes constitute a majority of leopard’s prey that mainly includes Thomson’s gazelles and impalas. Asian leopards usually feed on deer such as chitals and muntjacs in addition to various other Asian antelopes and Ibex. Prey preference estimates in southern India showed that the most favored prey is chital. A study conducted in China’s Wolong Reserve revealed how adaptable the leopard’s hunting behavior is: over the course of seven years, while the vegetative cover receded in most of the area, leopards very opportunistically shifted from primarily consuming tufted deer to bamboo rats and other smaller prey.

Reproduction and life cycle

Leopards do not follow any fixed schedule as far as mating is concerned. It depends upon the climate or region in which they live. Mating can take place all year round in tropical Asia and Africa or seasonal during January and February in cold climes of Manchuria and Siberia. The cycle of estrous lasts for about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Gestation period is for 90 to 105 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–4, but usually no more than one or two survive their first year as the infant mortality is as high as 40 to 50 percent.

For delivering babies female selects cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to make a den. Cubs are blind when born, but in four to nine days they open their eyes. The fur of new born cubs tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their coat is also grayer in color with less defined spots. At the age of three months they start following their mother out on hunts. At around the age of one year cubs start fending for themselves, but they do not abandon their mother till they are 18–24 months old. Leopards have been reported to reach 21 years of age in captivity.

Social structure and home range

In their IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) survey of the literature, Nowell and Jackson suggested home territory of males vary between 30–78 sq. km. (km2) against just 15–16 sq. km. for females. Research conducted in Kenya’s conservation area showed similar territory sizes and sex differential: 32.8 sq. km. for males, on average, and 14 sq. km for females. In Nepal, fairly larger male ranges have been found at about 48 sq. km., while female ranges are in keeping with other research, at 17 sq. km. When there are young cubs, females’ territories were seen to shrink to just 5 to 7 sq. km. Significant variations in the size of home territories have been suggested across the leopard’s range. In Namibia, for instance, research focused on spatial ecology in farmlands outside of protected areas showed ranges that were consistently above 100 sq. km, with some more than 300 sq. km; 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 authorities suggest that males do have larger ranges. Besides this 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.

Data available about the home range of leopards is not very reliable because it is mainly obtained from protected areas. As of the mid-1980s, only 13% of the leopard range actually fell within a protected area.

Outside the breeding season these cats are solitary animals and interactions between individuals appear to be infrequent. Aggressive encounters have been observed, which often lead to severe injuries and even death.

Distribution and habitat

Data collected in 1996 showed that leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat, found mostly in certain parts of southern Asia and widely in eastern and central Africa, however, populations before and since have shown a declining trends and are fragmented outside of sub-saharan Africa. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) report, within sub-Saharan Africa the species is “still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats” where other large cats have vanished.

Whatever data is available on leopard’s distribution in Asia is not consistent. It shows that populations in Southwest and Central Asia are small and fragmented, while in the northeast portion of the range, they are critically endangered, but in the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China, leopards are still relatively abundant. Of the species as a whole, its numbers are greater than those of other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.

These spotted cats live mainly in riverside forests, woodlands and grasslands. While they are usually associated with the savanna and the rainforests, they are exceptionally adaptable creatures and are quite comfortable even in the Russian Far East where they inhabit temperate forests where winter temperatures dips as low as ?25 °C.

Leopards too have enemies

Leopards have few enemies with whom they have to compete both for food and shelter. They include big cats like tigers, lions, spotted hyenas and both Asiatic and African wild dogs. These animals not only steal leopard’s kill, but also devour its young. Being smaller in size and power single lion or tiger is capable of killing an adult leopard. In the Kalahari Desert, brown hyenas often take away leopard’s kill. If the leopard is unable to take the kill up into a tree, a single brown hyena can snatch it from even the large leopard. Despite these hazards leopards have learnt to live alongside these stronger predators by hunting for different types of prey and by avoiding areas frequented by them. To avoid adversaries and food thieves they usually hide their kill high up in a tree. Lions are occasionally successful in climbing trees and fetching the leopard’s kill down.

According to Nowell and Jackson resource portioning takes place where leopards share their range with lions or tigers: in such situation spotted cats tend to take smaller prey (usually less than 75 kg). One study, conducted in tropical forests, shows that leopards have invented a strategy to avoid the larger cats by hunting at different times. With relatively abundant prey, tigers and leopards have been seen to successfully coexist without competitive exclusion or inter-species dominance hierarchies that may be more common to the savanna.

Cross-breeding with other species

Crossbreeding of leopards and other members of Panthera genus has been performed resulting in hybrid species. A pumapard is a hybrid animal resulting from mating between a leopard and a puma, which is not a Panthera genus. Three sets of such hybrids were bred in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Carl Hagenbeck at his animal park in Hamburg, Germany. While most of these animals did not reach adulthood, one of them was purchased in 1898 by the Berlin Zoo. A similar hybrid in the Berlin Zoo purchased from Hagenbeck was a cross between a male leopard and a female puma. A specimen in the Hamburg Zoo was the reverse pairing, fathered by a puma bred to an Indian leopardess.

In either cases whether born to a female puma mated to a male leopard, or to a male puma mated to a female leopard, pumapards inherit a form of dwarfism. Those reported grew to only half the size of the parents. They had a puma-like long body (proportional to the limbs, but nevertheless shorter than either parent), but short legs. The coat is variously described as sandy, tawny or greyish with brown, chestnut or faded rosettes.

Crossbreeding of jaguars, belonging to the genus Panthera, and leopards, in captivity, has also been documented. An offspring from the crossbreeding of a female leopard and a male jaguar is known as a jagupard and the reverse is known a leguar; however, crossbreds between either have also been called lepjags. Such mating can take place only in captivity as the leopards do not occur in the wild on the American continents – home of jaguars. Results from leopard-tiger mating have not been known to produce live offspring.

An offspring from the crossbreeding of a male leopard and a female lioness is known as a leopon (or a lipard if the sex of the parents is reversed). Leopons have been bred in captivity; a well documented case occurred at the Koshien Hanshin Park in Nishinomiya, Japan in the late 1950s. Although lions and leopards may come into contact in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are not known to interbreed naturally. However, there have been anecdotal reports of lion-leopard crosses, known as “marozis“, in several African countries.

Leopards and humans

Leopard is mentioned throughout the world history with attributes of intelligence, power and fearlessness. In China it stands for all that is warlike and fearless, the characteristics attributed to the spotted one. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Osiris represented this cat, thought to have been a cross between a lion (Leo) and a black panther with no spots (pard). Babylon’s King Nimrod was so named because he used a tame leopard as his aid as he went out on the hunt (Nimrod = Leopard tamer). The king went as far as to dress himself in leopard skins and acquired the name “the subduer of the spotted one” and later “the spotted one himself“.

Based on the fact that the leopards have been and still are a prominent part of many different cultures, it comes as no surprise that the cat is the most widespread species of the Felidae family.

Leopards have been known to human race since prehistory and they have featured in art, mythology and folklores of many countries and societies where they have historically occurred, such as Rome, Persia and ancient Greece, as well as some places where they have not existed for several millennia, such as England. The modern use of leopard as an emblem for sport or a coat of arms is much more restricted to Africa, though numerous products worldwide have used the name.

There are also records of leopards’ domestication. Several of them were kept in a menagerie established by King John at the Tower of London in the 13th century; in around 1235 three leopards were given to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

Man Eating

Like their cousins, tigers, leopards too usually avoid people. Humans may be targeted as prey in special situations. Healthy leopards usually prefer their natural prey to humans, but the sick, injured or struggling cats with a shortage of regular prey may resort to man-eating and become habituated to it. Two extreme cases occurred in India: the first leopard, “the Leopard of Rudraprayag“, may have killed over 125 people; the second, the “Panar Leopard“, was believed to have killed more than 400 people. An injury by a poacher made the animal incapable of hunting normal prey, so it turned to humans. Both were killed by the legendry Edward James Corbett, popularly known as Jim Corbett. He was born of Irish ancestry in the town of Nainital near Kumaon foothills of Himalayas, in the former United Provinces (now in the Indian state of Uttarakhand). Colonel in the British Indian Army, he was a hunter, conservationist and naturalist, famous for slaying a large number of man-eating tigers and leopards in India.

If we go by feline standards, man-eating leopards are quite bold and may enter human habitation for prey, more so than lions and tigers. Author and big game hunters like Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson, who had first-hand experience with many man-eating leopards, described them as far more threatening than tigers: Anderson wrote in his Nine Man-Eaters and One Rogue, Chapter II The Spotted Devil of Gummalapur, “Although examples of such animals are comparatively rare, when they do occur they depict the panther [leopard] as an engine of destruction quite equal to his far larger cousin, the tiger. Because of his smaller size he can conceal himself in places impossible to a tiger, his need for water is far less, and in veritable demoniac cunning and daring, coupled with the uncanny sense of self preservation and stealthy disappearance when danger threatens, he has no equal.”

Kenneth Anderson (1910–1974) was an Indian hunter and a writer who wrote many books about his adventures in the jungles of South India. Hailing from a Scottish family, settled in India for six generations, his father (Douglas Stewart Anderson) was superintendent of F.C.M.A. in Poona (now in Maharashtra) and dealt with the salaries paid to military personnel, having an honorary rank of captain. Kenneth Anderson was employed by the British Aircraft Factory in Bangalore (later HAL) in the rank of Factory Manager for Planning. He owned nearly 200 Acres of Land across Karnataka, Hyderabad and Tamil Nadu as stated in his books.

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