Somehow I never did a full species fact post on clouded leopards, so I’m sharing this final draft of the chapter on them that will be included (probably with a little more tweaking) in the eBook on big cats that’s due out next Friday.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of clouded leopards. These rare predators, hidden deep inside Asia’s rainforests, puzzle professionals, too.
Note the splotches on that coat — those are the “clouds” this adorable cat is named for.
But the “leopard” part?
Given the cat’s appearance, it’s difficult to avoid that. Nevertheless, for a long time experts didn’t believe clouded leopards belonged in Panthera alongside “real” leopards.
After all, clouded leopards don’t roar; they purr. And they only top the scale at around 50 pounds — some are even smaller than that!
Yet in many respects clouded leopards do act like a big cat. (Cat Specialist Group)
Down through the years, some zoologists chose to group clouded leopards together with nonpantherine cats (Heptner and Sludskii), while others considered this species to be a transitional form between Panthera and the rest of family Felidae — sort of a “small big cat.” (Macdonald et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
Genetic testing in the early 2000s eventually settled the matter: clouded leopards, though small, are indeed pantherines.
But there is still much more — including basic information like how many clouded leopards are left and how they behave in the wild — that conservationists need to know.
Here’s another complexity accompanying clouded leopards.
Legislation that protects these gorgeous pantherines and other endangered animals and plants (CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) identifies clouded leopards as N. nebulosa.
But for over a decade, many professional cat herders have been using two scientific names:
- Mainland (N. nebulosa): All clouded leopards except those on the Sunda islands.
- Sunda clouded leopard (N. diardi): The island clouded leopards, found today on Sumatra and Borneo (and perhaps the Batu Islands, though this hasn’t been documented yet). Up until this point, these had been called a subspecies, N. nebulosa diardi.
These developed out of the same genetic studies that placed clouded leopards among the big cats (starting in 2006).
These studies not only established the clouded leopard’s place in the cat family tree but also identified two separate species. Other researchers have backed this up by describing anatomical differences between N. nebulosa and N. diardi.
It could have happened, according to the biological species concept, which predicts that a new species will appear when a group gets isolated from the rest of its kind and continues to evolve on its own.
Not much water covers the Sunda Shelf today, and it was sometimes dry land during the ice ages.
During those times, enough clouded leopards to found a breeding population could have wandered onto what are now the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, getting cut off by rising sea levels as the great continental ice fields closer to Earth’s poles melted away.
They could no longer exchange genes with the mainland clouded leopards and so started off on their own evolutionary path.
However, I’m still going to continue to talk about the clouded leopard, N. nebulosa, until CITES terminology includes the two species names.
Part of the reason for this is that there are more ways to define a species than just reproductive isolation. No one way is “right” — it all depends on the purposes behind the definition (see de Queiroz in the reference list).
Physical differences do matter to taxonomists (those who decide what scientific names are most accurate), but to this layperson those described in mainland and Sunda clouded leopards seem very subtle.
From what little has been reported widely of mainland and Sunda clouded leopard ecology, the two species seem to live in almost identical ways.
And I haven’t come across anything discussing whether mainland and Sunda clouded leopards interbreed.
So little is known about wild clouded leopards that I suspect the last word on Neofelis species/subspecies has yet to be written.
In the meantime, though it’s never helpful for a layperson to second-guess specialists, it’s not wrong to continue following the approach used in legislation that protects clouded leopards.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted. (Since these professionals distinguish two species, there are two values given.)
- Weight: Mainland: 35 to 51 pounds. Sunda: 24 to 55 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: Mainland: 20 to 22 inches. (Wikipedia; not given on Sunda clouded leopard)
- Body length: For both: 27 to 43 inches.
- Tail length: For both: 24 to 36 inches. Clouded leopards are quite at home in trees and use this extra-long tail for balance. Other adaptations to the arboreal lifestyle include very broad paws and short, stout legs.
- Coat: Words just can’t convey the beauty of that coat on any clouded leopard, with its clouds, stripes, and spots on a background that can range from yellowish-brown to dark gray. As with most wild cats, the underparts are lighter colored and the back of each ear shows a light area set in very dark fur. Per Allen et al., individual clouded leopards can be identified by their coat patterns. Per the Cat Specialist Group, Sunda clouded leopards have smaller “clouds” and a grayer background than their mainland relatives. Sunquist and Sunquist note that all-black (melanistic) clouded leopards are extremely rare but have been reported from Borneo.
- Vocals: Clouded leopards make most of the same sounds that small cats do, including purring. But they also chuff (or prusten) like tigers, snow leopards, and jaguars, and they reportedly have a drawn-out moaning call that can be heard at some distance. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
The BBC still subscribes, apparently, to the ‘small big cat’ hypothesis. Doesn’t matter — check out that chuff!
- Average litter size: Both: 1 to 2 cubs. Ewer notes that this ranges from 1 to 4 cubs; typically, 2 cubs are born.
- Average life span: Mainland: 15 to 17 years. Sunda: 11 years on average, up to 17 years. (This may be data from captives, since very little is known about wild clouded leopards.)
Features unique to clouded leopards
- The longest fangs of any cat, in proportion to body size. (Tigers have the largest fangs overall, but that’s because they also very large cats.)
But while canine teeth pushing 2 inches long (Macdonald et al.) are impressive on a 50-pound clouded leopard, these aren’t saberteeth. For one thing, they’re conical in shape; sabercat upper canines were flat as well as long. For another, the clouded leopard also has dramatic lower fangs, where saber-toothed cats often had unusually small lower canines.
- The only big cat able to rotate its ankles 180 degrees and come headfirst out of a tree. A couple of the smaller cats — margays and marbled cats — can do this, too. Sunquist and Sunquist describe clouded leopards hanging from branches by their hind feet!
- Most studies of clouded leopard DNA show that the line of descent that has given us this beautiful cat is the oldest in Panthera, going back at least five million years and probably more than that. (Christiansen, 2008a; Kitchener et al., 2017; Werdelin et al.)
- It’s true that clouded leopards are the only big cat with a clouded coat, but the smaller marbled cat has one just like it. Werdelin et al. note that the marbled cat’s lineage is the oldest in its group — the bay cat lineage, which is one of seven other “branches” in the cat family besides Panthera. They speculate that this blotchy coat pattern, whether you call it “clouds” or “marbling,” might be the one originally sported by all early members of family Felidae!
Where found in the wild
Clouded leopards aren’t as well known as lions or tigers because they avoid people and live in the densest part of a forest (usually, but not always tropical rainforest).
Camera trapping has provided some data on clouded leopards to supplement the occasional sighting.
Cameras work the best when placed on well-traveled trails. Chances are fairly good that something interesting will come along!
But clouded leopards often travel through the trees, where there are no trails to guide camera trap setups. (Haidir et al.)
That said, clouded leopards have been observed from the Himalayan foothills in Nepal (up to 8,000 feet or more) through mainland Southeast Asia into China and southward into peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo.
Those on the island of Java disappeared during Neolithic times. Some sources say that clouded leopards are extinct in Singapore and Taiwan, but there are some recent reports that mention Taiwan’s wild clouded leopards, so I’m not sure what the status is there.
Closest cat-family relatives
Panthera is the oldest branch on the modern cat family tree, and clouded leopards are the oldest line on this branch. They sit a little apart from the other big cats, though. Molecular studies show clouded leopards to have no closer connection to leopards than they have to lions, tigers, jaguars, or snow leopards.
Famous clouded leopards
Zookeepers are very proud of clouded leopards Chai Li and Nah Fun, who live at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and have produced four litters thus far and even made it to Time magazine in 2015! (Wikipedia)
Here are some of their cubs!
Over sixty zoos around the world keep and breed clouded leopards today.
How clouded leopards hunt and eat
So little is known about this elusive big cat that no one can even speculate why it has such long teeth!
Clouded leopards aren’t solely restricted to the depth of a primeval tropical rainforest, but they do avoid people and seem to prefer the densest parts of any forested region. This makes it very difficult to study them in the wild.
How they reproduce
While not noted, this information is probably from observing captive clouded leopards.
After a three-month gestation, cubs are usually born in the spring (March through June). They weight only 5 to 10 ounces at birth and have spotted coats; the glorious “clouds” take about six months to develop.
Cubs open their eyes during the first two weeks of life, and in another week can walk around. Suckling will continue until around age three months, but the cubs start taking meat when they are seven to ten months old.
Sunquist and Sunquist note that cubs can kill a chicken when 80 days old, which seems a little precocious compared to other big cats. Per the Cat Specialist Group, that takes mainland clouded leopards a little over two years to reach sexual maturity.
Interactions with people
Clouded leopards are the state animal of Meghalaya, in India.
Per the Cat Specialist Group, Sunda clouded leopards on Borneo sometimes go after domestic livestock, but this is rare and retaliation killing is uncommon. Otherwise, I could find little information about human-cat conflict involving clouded leopards.
The humid tropical forests that clouded leopards call home are beautiful but not very effective when it comes to fossils.
Some fossil teeth going back almost 900,000 years have been identified (Johnson et al.; Werdelin et al.), but thus far nothing older has been found
Such fossils do show that clouded leopards once roamed the island of Java, though they have been extinct there since the Neolithic. (Cat Specialist Group)
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists both mainland and Sunda clouded leopards as vulnerable and notes that conservationists in Nepal consider the clouded leopard there to be endangered.
Featured image: Charlie Marshall, CC BY 2.0
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