Leopards are somewhat smaller than lions and tigers; the largest males are about 7 ft (2.3 m) long, including the 3-ft (90-cm) tail. Leopards are solitary, largely nocturnal, and good climbers; they hunt both on the ground and in trees. They prey mostly on small animals such as monkeys, rodents, and birds. Leopards are found in much of Africa south of the Sahara and in parts of Asia from Israel to Korea and Indonesia. They are listed as threatened or endangered throughout their range, owing primarily to loss of their natural habitat and to illegal killing for Oriental folk medicine.
A related species is the snow leopard, or ounce, Uncia uncia or P. uncia, which replaces ordinary leopards in the high mountains of Central Asia. It has long whitish fur and diffuse spotting. In summer, when the mountain animals on which it preys range to high pastures, the snow leopard may climb to an altitude of 13,000 ft (3,900 m). It usually hunts at dusk or at night. More distantly related are the clouded leopards, Neofelis nebulosa of SE Asia and Neofelis diardi (Bornean clouded leopard) of Borneo and Sumatra; they were considered a single species until the early 21st cent. The coat is more tawny and lighter in the clouded leopard, more gray and darker in the Bornean clouded leopard. Both have coats strikingly marked with black and brown; there are stripes on the face and tail, spots on the limbs, and rosettes on the body. The tail is exceptionally long and heavy and is thickly furred. Forest dwellers, clouded leopards are nocturnal and arboreal in their habits. Unlike the leopard, both the snow and clouded leopards do not roar. The snow and clouded leopards are endangered species.
Leopards are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.
The leopard (lɛpɚd; Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four roaring cats in the genus Panthera, the other three are the tiger, lion and jaguar. Once distributed across southern Asia and Africa, from Korea to South Africa, the leopard's range of distribution has decreased radically over time because of a variety of factors, including human influence, and the leopard now chiefly occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. There are fragmented populations in India, Indochina, Malaysia, and China. Despite the loss of range and continual declines in population, the cat remains a "Least Concern" species; its numbers are greater than that of the other Panthera species, all of which face more acute conservation concerns.
The leopard has relatively short legs and a long body, with a large skull. Physically, it most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is usually smaller and of slighter build. Its fur is marked with rosettes which lack internal spots, unlike those of the jaguar. Leopards that are melanistic, either completely black or very dark in coloration, are one of the big cats known colloquially as black panthers.
The species' success in the wild owes in part to its opportunistic hunting behaviour, its adaptability to a variety of habitats and its ability to move at up to approximately 60 kilometres (37 miles) an hour. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can hunt down and catch. Its preferred habitat ranges from rainforest to desert terrains. Its ecological role and status resembles that of the similarly-sized cougar in the Americas.
A panther can be any of several species of large felid; in North America, the term refers to cougars; in South America, jaguars; and everywhere else, it refers to leopards. Early naturalists distinguished between leopards and panthers not by colour (a common misconception), but by the length of the tail—panthers having longer tails than leopards.
The generic component of its modern scientific designation, Panthera pardus, is derived from Latin via Greek πάνθηρ pánthēr. A folk etymology held that it was a compound of παν pan ("all") and θηρ ("beast"). However, it is believed instead to derive from an Indo-Iranian word meaning "whitish-yellow, pale"; in Sanskrit, this word's reflex was पाण्डर pāṇḍara, from which was derived पुण्डरीक puṇḍárīka ("tiger", among other things), then borrowed into Greek.
In a mitochondrial DNA study, Yu and Zhang (2005) suggest that the leopard is most closely related to the snow leopard, and go so far as placing the latter as a fifth species of Panthera, P. uncia. Canonical works, such as the Mammal Species of the World, continue to list the snow leopard as the only species within its genus, Uncia uncia, but this could change; Johnson et al. (2006) support the placement of the snow leopard within Panthera. They suggest, however, that the snow leopard is most closely aligned with the tiger. The leopard is held to have diverged from the Panthera lineage subsequent to these two species, but before the lion and jaguar. Older research has tended to suggest that the leopard is most closely related to the lion and/or the jaguar. As recently as 2001, it was held to have split along with the lion in a phylogenetic analysis of chemical secretions amongst cats.
Panthera is believed to have emerged in Asia, with ancestors of the leopard and other cats subsequently migrating into Africa. Fossil evidence of leopard ancestors has been found from 2 to 3.5 Ma. These Pleistocene specimens resemble primitive jaguars. The modern leopard type is suggested to have evolved in Africa 470 000–825 000 years ago and radiated across Asia 170 000–300 000 years ago.
As many as 27 leopard subspecies were once suggested, the number growing from the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century to that of Reginald Pocock in the early 20th. In 1996, Miththapala et al. revised this downward to just eight subsepecies based on DNA analysis. Uphyrina et al. would concur in 2001 but split out a ninth separately, the Arabian leopard (P. pardus nimr). The latter researchers note the number might be an underestimation because of limited sampling of African leopards. Their list as follows:
Included in the African leopard (P. pardus pardus):
Included in the Persian leopard (P. pardus saxicolor):
Included in the Indian leopard (P. pardus fusca):
The leopard is an agile and stealthy predator. Although smaller than the other members of the Panthera genus, the leopard is still able to take large prey given a massive skull that well utilizes powerful jaw muscles. Its body is comparatively long for a cat and its legs are short. Head and body length is between 90 and 190 cm (35 and 75 in), the tail reaches 60 to 110 cm (24 to 43 in). Shoulder height is 45 to 80 cm (18-31 in). Males are considerably larger than females and weigh 37 to 91 kg (82 to 200 lbs) compared to 28 to 60 kg (62 to 132 lbs) for females. The larger-bodied populations of leopard (such as the Javan leopard and the leopards from the forested mountains and tropical rainforests of Africa) are generally found in areas isolated from competing large predators, especially from dominant big cats like lions and tigers.
One of many spotted cats, a leopard may be mistaken for a cheetah or a jaguar (though, of course, there is no range overlap with the latter). The leopard has rosettes rather than cheetah's simple spots, but they lack internal spots, unlike the jaguar. The leopard is larger and less lanky than the cheetah but smaller than the jaguar. The leopard's black, irregular rosettes serve as camouflage. They are circular in East Africa but tend to be square-shaped in southern Africa.
Leopards have been reported to reach 21 years of age in captivity.
A melanistic morph of the leopard occurs, particularly in mountainous areas and rain forests. The black color is heritable and caused by recessive gene loci. (While they are commonly called black panthers, the term is not exclusive to leopards; it also applies to melanistic jaguars.)
Melanistic leopards are particularly common on the Malayan Peninsula: early reports suggested up to half of all leopards there are black, but a 2007 camera-trap study in Taman Negara National Park found that all specimens were melanistic. Although the benefits of melanism are difficult to interpret, it may serve as camouflage in the rainforest habitat. (Genetic research has found four independent origins for melanism in cats, suggesting that there must be some adaptive advantage.) Another possibility is that the color variation was relic adaptation to an epidemic; genes causing melanism can also affect the immune system.
In Africa, black leopards are much less common as melanism is not an adaptive advantage on the savanna: dark coloration provides poor camouflage and makes hunting difficult. Estimates are as low as one in 80 or 100. In the dense forests of the Ethiopian Highlands, however, the black leopard is much more common than in Africa generally; as many as one in five leopards may be melanistic.
The leopard is known for its ability in climbing, and it has been observed resting on tree branches during the day and descending from trees headfirst. It is a powerful swimmer, although, not as strong as some other big cats, such as the tiger. The leopard is also very agile, and can run over sixty kilometres an hour, leap over six metres and jump up to three metres vertically. The leopard is primarily a nocturnal creature, and many of its operations are done by night. However, there have been recorded instances of leopards hunting during the light, especially when the sky is overcast. It spends much of its day resting and sleeping, up in the branches of trees, underneath rocks or in the grass.
The leopard stalks its prey silently and at the last minute pounces on its prey and strangles its throat with a quick bite. Leopards often hide their kills in dense vegetation or take them up trees, and are capable of carrying animals up to three times their own weight this way.
One survey of nearly 30 research papers found preferred prey weights of 10 to 40 kg (22-88 lb), with most preferred. Along with impala and chital, a preference for bushbuck and common duiker was found. Other prey selection factors include a preference for prey in small herds, in dense habitat, and those that afford the predator a low risk of injury.
The leopard is solitary and, aside from mating, interactions between individuals appear to be infrequent. Aggressive encounters have been observed, however. Two of five males studied over a period of a year at a game reserve in South Africa died, both violently. One was initially wounded in a male-male territorial battle over a carcass; taken in by researchers, it was released after a successful convalescence only to be killed by a different male a few months later. A second was killed by another predator, possibly a spotted hyena. A third of the five was badly wounded in intraspecific fighting, but recovered.
Leopards live mainly in grasslands, woodlands and riverside forests. The animal has primarily been studied in open savannah habitats, which may have biased common descriptions. It is generally considered nocturnal, for instance, but radio-tracking and scat analysis in West Africa has found 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. While associated with the savanna and rainforest, the leopard is exceptionally adaptable: in the Russian Far East, the animal inhabits temperate forests where winter temperatures reach a low of –25 °C.
Because of their wide habitat range, leopards must compete for food and safety with other large predators such as lions, tigers, spotted hyenas and wild dogs. These competitors sometimes may steal the leopard's kill or devour its young. A single lion or tiger is capable of killing an adult leopard. Leopards have adapted to live alongside these other predators by hunting at different times of the day, and by avoiding areas frequented by them. In search of safety, the leopard will often stash its young or a recent kill high up in a tree. Lions are occasionally successful in climbing trees and fetching leopard kills, and if motivated, an adult tiger might also scale a tree to acquire food.
Nowell and Jackson note that resource portioning occurs where the leopard shares range with the lion or tiger: the leopard tends to take smaller prey (usually less than 75 kg) where its large feline cousins are present. One tropical forest study suggests that leopards do not always avoid the larger cats by hunting at different times. With relatively abundant prey, tigers and leopards were seen to successfully coexist without competitive exclusion or inter-species dominance hierarchies that may be more common to the savanna.
A pseudo-melanistic leopard has a normal background color, but its excessive markings have coalesced so that its back seems to be entirely black. In some specimens, the area of solid black extends down the flanks and limbs; only a few lateral streaks of golden-brown indicate the presence of normal background colour. 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 face and underparts are paler and dappled like those of ordinary spotted leopards. These melanistic leopards are often incorrectly referred to by the general population as "black panthers".
In a paper about panthers and ounces of Asia, Reginald Innes Pocock used a photo of a leopard skin from southern India; it had large black-rimmed blotches, each containing a number of dots and it resembled the pattern of a jaguar or clouded leopard. Another of Pocock's leopard skins from southern India had the normal rosettes broken up and fused and so much additional pigment that the animal looked like a black leopard streaked and speckled with yellow.
Most other colour morphs of leopards are known only from paintings or museum specimens. There have been very rare examples where the spots of a normal black leopard have coalesced to give a jet black leopard with no visible markings. Pseudo-melanism (abundism) occurs in leopards. The spots are more densely packed than normal and merge to largely obscure the background colour. They may form swirls and, in some places, solid black areas. Unlike a true black leopard the tawny background colour is visible in places. One pseudo-melanistic leopard had a tawny orange coat with coalescing rosettes and spots, but white belly with normal black spots (like a black-and-tan dog).
A 1910 description of a pseudo-melanistic leopard:
Another pseudo-melanistic leopard skin was described in 1915 by Holdridge Ozro Collins who had purchased it in 1912. It had been killed in Malabar, India that same year.
In May 1936, the British Natural History Museum exhibited the mounted skin of an unusual Somali leopard. The pelt was richly decorated with an intricate pattern of swirling stripes, blotches, curls and fine-line traceries. This is different from a spotted leopard, but similar to a king cheetah hence the modern cryptozoology term king leopard. Between 1885 and 1934, six pseudo-melanistic leopards were recorded in the Albany and Grahamstown districts of South Africa. This indicated a mutation in the local leopard population. Other king leopards have been recorded from Malabar in southwestern India. Shooting for trophies may have wiped out these populations.
A pumapard is a hybrid animal resulting from a union between a leopard and a puma. Three sets of these hybrids were bred in the late 1890s and early 1900s by Carl Hagenbeck at his animal park in Hamburg, Germany. Most did not reach adulthood. One of these was purchased in 1898 by Berlin Zoo. A similar hybrid in Berlin Zoo purchased from Hagenbeck was a cross between a male leopard and a female puma. Hamburg Zoo's specimen was the reverse pairing, the one in the black and white photo, fathered by a puma bred to an Indian leopardess. 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 have 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.
Leopards have been known to humans since antiquity and have featured in the art, mythology and folklore of many countries where they have historically occurred, such as ancient Greece, Persia and Rome, as well as some where they have not existed since for several millenniums, such as in England. The modern use of the 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.
Leopards and humans have many relations, involving tourism, heraldry and modern culture. Leopard domestication has also been recorded - several leopards were kept in a menagerie established by King John at the Tower of London in the 13th century; in around 1235 three of these animals were given to Henry III by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.
Because they can subsist on small prey and are less dependent on large prey, leopards are less likely to turn to man-eating than either lions or tigers. However, leopards might be attracted to human settlements by livestock or pets, especially domestic dogs, and they may resort to the eating of humans should conditions demand it, and no other food is available.