Leopards have it all — that beautiful coat; Disney-like small ears set into an adorably big round head; and a powerful but graceful frame that’s equally at home on the ground or in trees.
So why doesn’t this big cat dominate every ecosystem in Asia and Africa?
Leopards are survivors, though. They’ll adapt to environmental conditions that can force out other big cats.
This is probably why a few leopards are still found throughout most (though not all) of their historic range (Uphyrkina et al.), while lions and tigers have vanished from much of theirs.
But only a few.
There is another dominant species around, and it has had a profound effect on leopards.
There are also leopard subspecies — that’s basically a third scientific name, like Panthera pardus melas for the Javan leopard or P. p. nimr for the Arabian leopard.
But taxonomists are still debating how to define these.
It’s not easy to draw clear subspecies lines, given how hard it is to study this elusive cat and the many ways a single species can adapt to different habitats (making it look as if there’s more than one species when there really is only one).
Since some of these individual populations are close to extinction, we’ll include subspecies details in the “Red-Listed” section below.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise mentioned.
- Weight: 40 to 200 pounds. The largest are typically found in Africa, but mountain leopards of Iran and Central Asia are also hefty. And, as with many cat species (including house cats), males are usually larger than females.
- Body length: 36 to 75 inches.
- Tail length: 20 to 40 inches.
- Coat: This is more beautifully complex than “yellow with black spots.” Ready? Okay — let’s dive in!
The background color is usually yellowish to olive, but that’s more of a suggestion than a rule.
In warm, humid climates like the rainforests of Africa and southern Asia, black leopards are common, while spotted leopards in these regions — the Java leopard shown here at the right, top, for instance — have deeper, richer colors.
In the cool north, Eurasian leopards, like the Amur leopard in the middle image, may be light-colored and shaggy enough to be taken for snow leopards during wintertime.
In Africa, per the Cat Specialist Group, background color seems to change by habitat. Leopards appear reddish to ocher on the savannah and paler to more yellow-brown in semi-desert areas. The African leopard in the bottom image may be from the savannah.
Albino leopards are rare but have been reported in India, China, Zimbabwe, and East Africa. White leopards with pale markings are also known.
Now for the “spots”! To blend in with the landscape, leopards have evolved coat patterns of black/brown spots and rosettes — several black/dark brown spots that come together in a circle or square. Spots sometimes coalesce on the cat’s throat to form a “necklace.”
The top of a leopard’s nose and muzzle isn’t spotted, but its face is. Whiskers may be black, white or half-and-half.
Those whiskers are quite long, and leopards also often have extra-long hairs in their eyebrows, the better to navigate treetops and ground vegetation in the dark.
All underparts of the coat, from chin to tail, are white. The upper tail surface, though, has a mix of rosettes, spots and other dark markings. The back of each ear is half white (upper) and half black (lower).
There’s a lot of individual variation of spot patterns and coat characteristics in leopards, as well as regional variability of fur quality (from short and coarse in many parts of Africa to as much as 2 inches long and fluffy in the Russian Far East). (Cat Specialist Group; Heptner and Sludskii; Sunquist and Sunquist; Uphyrkina et al.)
- Vocals: The leopard’s signature sound is “sawing” — it’s labeled a leopard roar in many YouTube videos. Whatever you choose to call it, this remarkable sound carries up to 2 miles through the still air during mating season.
Typhoon lives in a cool climate with harsh winters. See how fluffy his fur is?
Leopards also grunt, “puff,” mew, snarl, spit, and hiss. (Ewer; Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Average litter size: 1-4 cubs; per Ewer, usually 2-3.
- Life span: 13 to 21 years.
Features unique to this cat:
- Greatest geographic range of any cat, as we’ll see in the next section.
- Widest range of habitat — basically anything between the sea and timberline, except true desert (which is the sand cat’s domain). Leopards have even established themselves in urban areas, including the outskirts of Mumbai and Johannesburg.
- Broadest diet of any large hypercarnivore. (Jacobson et al.) All cats are opportunists, but leopards will eat anything from insects to ibexes. They’ve even been observed chowing down on watermelons in India!
Where found in the wild:
Leopard country today runs from the Russian Far East and parts of Eurasia through tropical Asia, the Middle East, and subsaharan Africa.
In southwestern and central Asia, these beautiful cats are sighted mainly in the more remote mountains and rugged foothill areas.
They may be extinct in a few places, but overall, the cats’ geographic range is the same as it was in the mid-18th century.
However, leopards only occupy about 25% to 37% of it now, thanks to us basically. (Jacobson et al.)
We can’t reverse human history or the Industrial Revolution, but at least we can celebrate the fact that leopard-skin coats and rugs are no longer popular.
And let’s also celebrate that leopards ARE survivors. They’re incredibly versatile. In fact, as long as they’ve got enough prey, cover, and water, the only limiting factors for them are competition and the presence of people.
- As we’ve seen up above, with escape routes available, leopards can coexist with other large predators even in places like the Serengeti Plain where lions chase them on sight.
- These big spotted cats are capable of living near us. They’re so secretive, people often don’t realize they’re in the neighborhood.
When one is discovered, things get just as crazy as you would expect — but sometimes there are human heroes around.
According to Animal Rescue India, this leopard sustained only minor injuries and was released later in a safe area. That took guts to face both the leopard and the crowd. You can’t really blame the citizens for going after the cat when it was helpless — leopards don’t attack us as frequently as lions and tigers do, but when the occasional individual does turn to human prey, it’s a nightmare. Man-eating leopards slink around undetected; they will enter buildings, breaking through doors and windows if need be; and they often go after children. Had this one been a problem animal, in terms of behavior, authorities would have killed it.
Closest cat-family relatives:
Big cats are the granddaddies of all modern cats, going back at least 11 million years.
Within this lineage, leopards, lions, and jaguars seem to be more closely related to one another than to tigers or snow leopards. Experts disagree on the precise connections, though.
Some say that leopards have more in common with lions than with jaguars, despite superficial appearances. Others link jaguars and lions together, instead, and leave the leopard on its own.
- Panther, a god (and also Dionysus' ride).
- Nissa, Hollywood actor.
- Bagheera, in The Jungle Story, may be the best known fictional leopard.
How leopards hunt and live:
Leopards are skilled at using cover, even things like vehicles and dustdevils.
Here one uses a gully to stalk impala:
Never give up.
These cats will take anything from a little rock hyrax to a 1-ton eland, but they prefer medium-sized herbivores (in the 22- to 90-pound weight range). In some areas, they will turn to domestic animals if natural prey is scarce. Some even develop a taste for dogs, which may also explain the rage of the Nashik City citizens in the video up above.
Leopards are considered land predators, despite their agility in trees. They hunt either at night or during the day, depending on prey habits as well as the presence of other big cats and/or humans.
Surprisingly little information on this widespread cat’s life in the wild. That’s a testimony to its elusiveness as well as the ruggedness of the terrain it often is found in.
How they reproduce:
It’s a big deal when a tiger on a private reserve has cubs.
I selected these data from the Cat Specialist Group, Ewer, and Sunquist & Sunquist:
- Gestation: 90-95 days. Births can be in any season.
- Birth weight: 1 to 2 pounds.
- Eyes open at 6 to 9 days.
- Cubs start eating solids at around 40 days and are weaned at about 12 weeks. Around that time they weigh 7 to 9 pounds and start travelling together, like Karula’s two cubs above.
- Permanent canines come in at around 8 months.
- Age at independence: 1 to 1-1/2 years, generally. However, sibling leopards may stay together for several months after that.
Interactions with people:
We have already seen some of the conflict that arises when people and leopards get too close together. Predation on livestock is another major problem, and it often leads to retaliatory killing and persecution of all leopards.
The oldest unequivocal leopard fossils come from Africa, about 2 million years ago; these cats were definitely in Eurasia a million years after that. (Werdelin et al.)
Leopards might be even older than that, but paleontologists and molecular biologists are still working it out.
During much of the last 2 million years, leopards also prowled across Europe, but I haven’t come across any mention of their presence in the New World.
Taking a leopard census in the wild is impossible for many reasons, not least because of the wide geographic area where this cat is found and its skill in avoiding us.
Experts do the best they can. As more and more information has come in since the 1980s, the leopard’s conservation status has varied from Vulnerable to Least Concern back to Vulnerable again, where it has remained since 2015.
Per the Cat Specialist Group, the main threats to the world’s leopards include:
- Loss of prey base because of human activities, including a flourishing bushmeat trade
- Fragmentation of habitat as we spread out in agricultural and urban development
- Illegal wildlife trade
- Persecution and retaliation
- Poorly managed trophy hunting
However, some leopard populations are at higher risk.
As noted above, there’s no expert consensus yet on the number of leopard subspecies. Here is a conservation-related overview, based on the Cat Specialist Group’s selection of subspecies and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List:
- Amur and other leopards of Eastern Asia from the Russian Far East to China (Panthera pardus orientalis): Critically endangered.
- Arabian leopard (P. p. nimr): Critically endangered.
- Java leopard (P. p. melas): Critically endangered.
- Persian leopard (depending on source, P. p. tulliana or P. p. saxicolor): I’m not sure about this. At the time of writing, IUCN calls saxicolor the Persian leopard and lists it as Endangered; the Cat Specialist Group includes this subspecies in tulliana together with leopards in Turkey, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, which are all listed as Vulnerable.
- Sri Lankan leopard: Endangered.
- African leopard (P. p. pardus): Vulnerable.
- Indian leopard (P. p. fusca) Vulnerable.
- Indochinese leopard, per IUCN, found in Southeast Asia and probably southern China (P. p. delacouri): Vulnerable.
Featured image: Java leopard, abxyz/Shutterstock
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