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The leopard is a medium-sized wild cat found in a variety of habitats in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Known for their distinctively beautiful "spotted" fur, leopards are top predators and will ambush their prey from their perch in trees. This hunting method differs from that of their big cat cousins, which chase their prey at high speeds.
anatomy and appearance
A leopard is an animal with a long, flexible body supported by powerful legs and a long tail for balance in trees. The color and markings of leopards can vary greatly depending on the surrounding habitat, with leopards found in open grasslands having buff, sun-bleached background hair, while those found in forests tend to be darker in color to blend into the shade , with more camouflage markings.
The black ring-like patterns that cover the leopard's fur are called rosettes, but these turn into solid spots on the face and limbs (as well as rings on the tail) and provide the leopard with camouflage from its surroundings. Leopards are very strong and muscular animals, capable of pulling themselves up trees using their legs and retractable claws. Like many other big cats, leopards are able to insert their claws into the folds of skin on their paws to ensure they don't get dull as they move around. Their extraordinary eyesight and hearing give them a great advantage when hunting at night.
The first mammals are believed to have lived 208 million years ago – after the extinction of the dinosaurs. The first carnivores came from animals known as apes about 60 million years ago. These tree-dwelling creatures were about the size of a house cat and had sharp, crushing teeth. Miacoids are the oldest relatives of the modern leopard.
About 40 million years ago, carnivores were divided into two groups – Carnivora and Feliformes . The Carniformia group was more bear-like and evolved into bears, dogs, weasels, raccoons, skunks, badgers, sea lions, walruses, and seals. Feliformia is more feline-like and has evolved into felines , hyenas, and mongooses.
Proailurus, the oldest known cat, appeared in France 30 million years ago. The northern creature weighed about 25 pounds and had eight more teeth than modern cats. 20 million years ago, the Pseudaelurines, the direct ancestors of modern cats, were found in the fossil record. About 1.6 million years ago, the saber-toothed cat Smilodon was identified in the fossil record from the discovery of the La Brea Tar Pits in California. These big cats became extinct about 10,000 years ago.
There are seven different subspecies of leopards that vary in appearance and geographic location, with the African leopard being the most common and widespread.
- The African leopard ( Panthera pardus pardus) can be seen in a variety of habitats in Africa, including deserts, forests, mountains and coastlines. Known for their speed and agility, they are able to carry heavy prey up trees with ease.
- The Amur leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis , is native to southeastern Russia and northern China. This critically endangered animal is considered one of the rarest cats on Earth.
- The Anatolian leopard , Panthera pardus tulliana, is native to Iran, Turkey, the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The last official sighting of the Anatolian leopard occurred in 1974, when the animal died after attacking a woman. Some scientists have declared it extinct, while others believe there are 10-15 Anatolian leopards left in the wild.
- The Barbary leopard, Panthera pardus panthera, sometimes called the North African leopard, lives in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. They were thought to be extinct, but only a small number have survived.
- The Sinai leopard ( Panthera pardus jarvisi) is a critically endangered big cat native to the Arabian Peninsula. It lives in mountainous highlands and grasslands.
- The southern Arabian leopard, Panthera pardus nimir, is also native to the Arabian Peninsula and is also critically endangered. It is the smallest member of the leopard family and has adapted to life in the desert.
- The Zanzibar leopard ( Panthera pardus pardus) is a large African leopard that last lived on Unguja Island in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Declared extinct in the mid-1990s, the Zanzibar leopard is the largest carnivore and top predator on the island.
Not only is the leopard the most widespread of all the big cats, but it is actually one of the most adaptable and exists in a variety of different habitats. Common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, there are also small isolated leopard populations in remote areas of the Far East, North Africa and Arabia. Leopards can be found in many different areas where there is a good source of cover and an adequate food supply, including tropical rainforests, leafy savannas, barren deserts, and alpine highlands. One of the reasons they are thought to still be successful in most of their natural range is that leopards have adapted to increasing numbers of people and are known to live and hunt in areas close to urban activity. However, in some parts of its natural habitat, populations are threatened by loss of natural habitat due to deforestation and expanding settlements.
Behavior and Lifestyle
Leopards are solitary animals that hunt on the ground and in trees. They are excellent climbers and spend most of the day resting in the shade of tree branches or under sheltered rocks. They are quite unique among big cats in that leopards rely heavily on being able to get close enough to their prey before ambushing them, rather than expending a lot of energy in a high-speed chase. Once captured and killed, the prey is dragged to safety, either into dense vegetation or up tree trunks and into branches. Leopards are solitary animals that mark their territory with scent marks and by making rough, raspy calls that are said to sound like sawing rough wood. Range size depends on habitat and food availability, but male leopards have significantly larger ranges than females, often overlapping (sometimes as much as 40%) the ranges of many males and other females.
Check out some incredible facts about leopards.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Throughout their natural range, leopards do not have a unique breeding season, with females breeding every two months. After a gestation period of about three months, a female leopard gives birth to two to six cubs who are blind at birth and weigh only half a kilogram. Leopard cubs are very vulnerable in the wild and so remain hidden in dense vegetation until they are able to follow their mothers around at 6 to 8 weeks of age, camouflaged by dark, woolly fur and faint spots. Leopard cubs weaned at about three months of age will remain with their mother for another 18 months until she is ready to mate again and encourage the cubs to independently establish their own territories. Although male leopards lead solitary lives except for mating, the range of female leopards often overlaps with that of their mothers. Leopards typically live 10 to 15 years in the wild, depending on habitat and available food supplies.
diet and prey
Leopards mainly prey on medium-sized mammals such as deer and warthogs, and they are often ambushed by tree branches overhead or dense vegetation a few meters away. However, leopards also eat a wide variety of small prey, including birds, reptiles, and rodents, and even hunt dung beetles when larger animals are scarce. By eating smaller (and more varied) prey, leopards are able to avoid the intense competition for food with other large carnivores like tigers and hyenas, with which they share parts of their natural range. Leopards are very strong and are able to capture prey much heavier than them, such as antelope, which are then dragged remarkably to the safety of tree branches, where they are either eaten immediately or hidden (saved for later).
Predators and Threats
Since the leopard is a stealthy top predator in its natural environment, the greatest threats to adult leopards in general are other leopards, and the occasional lion or tiger that can get close.
Nile crocodiles are also a threat due to their enormous strength, extreme aggression and willingness to sink their fangs into anything, and have been known to cross waters with leopards and win.
The boa constrictor is another particularly formidable foe, known to outwit these beautiful top predators.
However, leopard cubs are much more vulnerable, and the fact that they have many predators causes them to spend their first few months hiding in dense vegetation. However, it is when the mother is out hunting that leopard cubs are most at risk from hyenas, jackals, lions, tigers, snakes and birds of prey. Although they have adapted to different environments, leopard populations in parts of their natural range are declining due to habitat loss from the timber industry and agriculture, as well as human hunting for trophies and meat and fur.
Interesting Facts and Features
Originally thought to be a hybrid between a lion and a jaguar, the leopard has been the subject of much genetic confusion and wasn't really properly differentiated until more than 100 years ago. Some confusion is thought to come from the panther, a species of leopard that has completely black fur with occasional faint markings. A genetic mutation known as melanism causes an abundance of dark pigment in the skin and fur, a phenomenon exhibited by many mammalian species. Black leopards tend to be found in dense forests, are more abundant in South Asia than in Africa, and are born in a litter that also has yellow cubs. Black leopards are actually quite common, and surprisingly, it is thought that as many as 50 percent of the leopards that inhabit the dense rainforests of Peninsular Malay are black.
relationship with humans
Leopards have been one of the most sought-after animals for hunters since big game hunting took off in Africa. A favorite of sport hunters among Africa's "Big Five", leopards are especially heavily affected by trophy hunting in certain regions. In many places, leopards are also regularly persecuted by locals who hunt them for their meat and fur, and because they are not afraid of people (although they are rare) and are considered pests of farms and livestock. However, a recent boom in African tourism means more and more people are willing to pay to see these majestic animals in the wild, thereby generating income for local communities. This has resulted in leopards being more protected, rather than persecuted, by the natives, who provide them with an important newfound source of good income.
Protect the status quo and life today
Today, the leopard is listed by the IUCN as not extinct in its natural environment, as populations are stable across most of its vast natural range. However, many leopard subspecies are considered endangered or critically endangered in their native habitats, and one is considered extinct. This is thought to be due to the low numbers or geographical remoteness of these populations, which are heavily impacted by local hunting and habitat loss. For example, the Javan leopard from the Indonesian island of Java is one of the most endangered animals in the world. However, leopards are still legally hunted as trophies by sport hunters in some African countries, with annual quotas allocated by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
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about the author
After a career providing opportunities for local communities to experience and create art, I enjoy having time to write about two of my favorite things – nature and animals. I spend half my life outside, usually with my husband and adorable 14 year old puppy. We enjoyed walking around the lake and taking photos of the animals we encountered including: otters, osprey, Canada geese, ducks and nesting bald eagles. I also enjoy reading, discovering books to add to my library, collecting and playing vinyl records, and listening to my son's music.
Leopard FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are leopards herbivores, carnivores or omnivores?
Leopards are carnivores, which means they eat other animals.
Which kingdom does the leopard belong to?
Leopards belong to the animal kingdom.
What door does the leopard belong to?
Leopards belong to the phylum Chordate.
What kind of leopard is it?
Leopards belong to the class Mammalia.
What family do leopards belong to?
Leopards belong to the cat family.
What order do leopards belong to?
Leopards belong to the order Carnivora.
What genus is a leopard?
Leopards belong to the genus Panthera.
What type of mulch do leopards have?
Leopards are covered with fur.
Where do leopards live?
Leopards live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
What type of habitat do leopards live in?
Leopards live in tropical rain forests, grasslands and mountains.
Who are the leopard's natural enemies?
Predators of leopards include tigers, lions and humans.
How many children does a leopard have?
Leopards have an average of 3 babies.
What interesting facts about leopards?
Leopards spend most of their time in trees!
What is the scientific name of the leopard?
The scientific name of the leopard is Panthera pardus.
What is the lifespan of a leopard?
Leopards can live 10 to 15 years.
What is the name of the little leopard?
Young leopards are called cubs.
How many kinds of leopards are there?
There are 7 species of leopards.
What is the biggest threat to leopards?
The biggest threats to leopards are trophy hunting and habitat loss.
What is another name for leopard?
Leopards are also known as black panthers.
How fast is a leopard?
Leopards can travel as fast as 30 miles per hour.
Who would win a leopard vs leopard fight?
The biggest differences between leopards and leopards are their size, color and strength. Panthers are bigger than leopards because we used the biology of the jaguar to populate their physics stats. Panthers can weigh up to 300 pounds, but leopards can weigh up to 198 pounds. This difference is significant and far-reaching in this struggle.
Who will win in a battle between a leopard and a lion?
A lion would win a fight with a leopard because it is stronger, more defensive, and often takes on bigger prey than the leopard.
Who will win in a battle between a leopard and a gorilla?
A leopard would win a fight with a gorilla. It was too fast and ferocious for a strong gorilla to fight back.
Who would win in a battle between a leopard and a hyena?
A leopard would win a fight with a hyena. The big cat is too skilled and deadly for a hyena to defeat it in a fight. Hyenas are used to fighting with backup in the form of their companions. But, they join the fight alone, putting them at an instant disadvantage.
Meanwhile, leopards live, hunt and fight alone. Also, they hunt large game alone. If the leopard were left to ambush the hyena, the fight would be over in seconds, with the leopard's mouth wrapped around the enemy's neck.
Who would win a fight between a leopard and a tiger?
In the battle between leopard and tiger, the tiger must win. Tigers often prey on leopards to hunt or defend their territories.
how do leopards say in
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- David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley (2011) Animals, The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife
- Tom Jackson, Lorenz Books (2007) Encyclopedia of World Animals
- David Burney, Kingfisher (2011) The Animal Encyclopedia of Kingfishers
- Richard Mackay, University of California Press (2009) Atlas of Threatened Species
- David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley (2008) Illustrated Animal Encyclopedia
- Dorling Kindersley (2006) Dorling Kindersley Animal Encyclopedia
- David W. Macdonald, Oxford University Press (2010) Encyclopedia of Mammals
- About the leopard, available here: http://www.awf.org/content/wildlife/detail/leopard
- Leopard information, available here: http://www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/15954/0