Species fact:  Clouded leopards

Clouded leopards are adorable.

The “clouds” are those beautiful dark blotches on the coat.

These wild felines aren’t close relatives of the leopard, but modern research shows that clouded leopards do belong with the big cats. (Cat Specialist Group)

Their head and face are a little weird looking. That could be because these Southeast Asian cats are primitive – the first big cats to evolve some 11 million years ago. (Werdelin and others)

But some paleontologists have a different explanation for it.

Read on for more facts about this interesting member of the big-cat lineage.

Who’s this?

Think of this as the BOGO cat.

Biologists recently discovered that what we call clouded leopards are actually two different species. They just resemble each other, like leopards and jaguars do. (Cat Specialist Group; Culver and others)

However, leopards and jaguars are easy to tell apart since they live on different continents and do have some physical differences.

Both the mainland clouded leopard – Neofelis nebulosa – and the Sunda clouded leopard – Neofelis diardi – call Southeast Asia home.

One ranges over the mainland and the other lives on a few Indonesian islands. They share the Malaysian peninsula. (Cat Specialist Group; Grassman and others; Hearn and others; ISEC)

The big difference between these two cats is in their genes. (Macdonald and others) On the outside, they’re almost identical.

For our simple purpose here, let’s just buy one and get one free, keeping in mind that the genetic differences are very important to scientists.

What does it look like?

As you can see in the video above, clouded leopards are smallish – about 40-50 pounds for an adult. Their tail is longer than in most cats, and their legs are short and powerful, with those very broad paws giving them sure footing as they race through treetops. (Cat Specialist Group)

Clouded leopards also hunt and travel long distances on the ground. In the wild, they are very secretive, so very little is known about them. (Cat Specialist Group; Hearn and others)

How friendly/dangerous is it?

Any wild cat can hurt you, but clouded leopards avoid people. They occasionally go after poultry and other small livestock, but it’s not a major problem. Cubs can be tamed, and poachers trap these endangered cats for the illegal pet trade as well as for their fur. (Cat Specialist Group; Grassman and others; Hearn and others)

When did it evolve?

People interested in ancient life study it through fossils – basically, whatever few anatomical remains have come down to us through geologic time.

This approach is very limited. In the last few decades, though, molecular techniques have been developed to study the ancestors of today’s living cats in much better detail. (Rose)

According to this genetic data, the big-cat lineage was the first modern group to evolve, and clouded leopards were its first members. (Werdelin and others)

Dates vary (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds), but according to one well-known study, this all happened around 11 million years ago. (O’Brien and Johnson; Werdelin and others)

The problem is that this can’t be backed up yet by fossils, which don’t go back that far. (Werdelin and others)

Some paleontologists, working strictly with fossils, have found evidence that suggests another story.

They say that snow leopards, not clouded leopards, are the most primitive big cat. According to this view, clouded leopards have their unique look because their evolutionary path converged on that of the big cats instead of being in on its start. (Christiansen)

Who’s right? The cats aren’t saying.

All of these experts are doing the best they can. The problem is that all methods of investigating the distant past have their limits, and their results often can be interpreted differently. (Rose)

Why is it on the IUCN Red List?

Clouded leopards are found from the Himalayan foothills through mainland Southeast Asia into China and, for the Sunda clouded leopard, also in Sumatra, Borneo, and the Batu Islands. (Grassman and others)

They are adaptable but mostly live in evergreen tropical forests that are fast disappearing in the region. Their range has shrunk, and while exact numbers are hard to pin down, there are only about 4500 mature clouded leopards left in the wild, per current estimates. (Grassman and others; Hearn and others)

Featured image: Clouded leopard, by Spencer Wright, Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Cat Specialist Group: Mainland and Sunda clouded leopards. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=116 and http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=225. Last accessed September 17, 2017.

Christiansen, P. 2008. Evolutionary changes in craniomandibular shape in the great cats (Neofelis Griffith and Panthera Oken). Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society. 95:766-788.

Culver, M.; Driscoll, C.; Eizirik, E.; and Spong, G. 2010. Genetic applications in wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 107-123. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Grassman, L.; Lynam, A.; Mohamed, S.; Duckworth, J. W.; and others. 2016. Neofelis nebulosa. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016:e.T14519A97215090.

Hearn, A.; Ross, J.; Brodie, J.; Cheyne, S.; and others. 2015. Neofelis diardi. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015:e.T136603A97212874.

International Society for Endangered Cats: Mainland and Sunda clouded leopards. https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/clouded-leopard/ and https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/sunda-clouded-leopard/ . Last accessed September 17, 2017.

Kitchener, A. C., Van Valkenburgh, B., and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lee, S. June 12, 2017. Move to protect the Sunda clouded leopard. The Star. http://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/06/12/move-to-protect-the-sunda-clouded-leopard/#iQuVGjP6h94qzKT2.01 Last accessed September 17, 2017.

Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. Dramatis personae: an introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and A. J. Loveridge, 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Rose, K. D. 2006. The Beginning of the Age of Mammals. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Werdelin, L., and Olsson, L. 1997. How the leopard got its spots: a phylogenetic view off the evolution of felid coat patterns. Biological Journal of the Linnaen Society. 62:383-400.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilting, A.; Christiansen, P.; Kitchener, A. C.; Kemp, Y. J. M.; Ambu, L.; and Fickel, J. 2011. Geographical variation in and evolutionary history of the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) with the description of a new subspecies from Borneo. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 58:317-328.

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