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Description: The Leopard

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Spot patterns and coat colour variations in leopards 

10 October 2013


Being the cat with the greatest global geographical distribution, the leopard Panthera pardus has many coat colour and rosette pattern variations. It is the smallest of the four roaring cat species and has relatively short legs, a long body and a large skull. It is similar to the jaguar Panthera onca in having black rosettes and spots. However, the rosettes of a leopard are smaller and more densely packed than those of the jaguar

www.leopard.tvIn a leopard, the rosettes vary geographically in shape, size, the thickness of the margins and whether the margins are broken into two to more black spots. However, the rosettes in a leopard do not have a small, black spot in the centre as is common in the jaguar. They cover most of the body and there are solid, black spots on the lower limbs, belly, throat and face. Along the spine, the spots may be solid or form lines. On the throat the spots sometimes form a necklace while the tail has a combination of black rosettes, spots, patches or rings and a tip that is black on top and white below. The underparts from the chin to the tail are white while the upper half of the backs of the ears are white and the lower half are black. In Eastern Africa the rosettes are more circular than in southern Africa while the largest rosettes occur in Asian leopards.

www.leopard.tvThe background colour of the coat varies considerably geographically from nearly golden to ochre, orange-tawny, pale red, greyish yellow, buff grey, dusky yellowish green to olive green. The coat colour of a leopard may become paler with age. www.leopard.tvBlack leopards are rare in Africa but more common in southern India, and especially common in Java and Malaysia where roughly half the leopards have black coats. In Africa, black leopards have been reported and recorded in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, the foothills of the Ruwenzori Mountains, the Ethiopian highlands, the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and reputedly from South Africa. A black coat colour or melanism is caused by a single recessive gene on an autosomal chromosome. An autosomal chromosome is one that does not determine the sex of an animal. Albino leopards have been reported from India, China, Zimbabwe and East Africa but are rare.

The fur of a leopard varies geographically, being short, closely knit and rather coarse in Africa, while it is longer and more silky with less underwool in India. However, in colder regions such as Nepal, northern India and Sikkim it is www.leopard.tvcoarser, thicker and more woolly, especially during the winter. The Amur of Far Eastern leopard of Siberia has a www.leopard.tvlong, thick fur with the hair being some 50 mm long on the belly and a woolly undercoat.

Broadly speaking, the colour and pattern of the coat is related to the habitat. The coat is often paler yellow to cream in semi-deserts, more grey in colder climates and a darker gold in rainforests. The rare strawberry-coloured leopard seems to be confined to South Africa and this erythrism is still little understood. It is a genetic condition that causes an overabundance of red pigment and a lack of black pigment in the coat colour. Such a leopard has recently been killed on a remote road in the Mpumalanga province near Sekhukune.

www.leopard.tvThe leopards of the southern Cape region of South Africa are only about half the weight of those in the more mesic savannas and the semi-desert southern Kalahari. For this reason, and because the two original specimens from which they were described had a blackish coat colour, Albert Gunther described them as a separate species Panthera melanotica in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London on 3 March 1885 as a supposedly black variety of leopard. These specimens were from near Grahamstown in the Albany district of the Eastern Cape province and their coats had a tawny background which brightened to a rich orange gloss on the shoulders. There were almost no rosettes but rather numerous, small separate black spots on the body. The spots coalesced on the back into a narrow black saddle along the spine from the head to the base of the tail. The underparts were white with large black spots but the facial markings were normal for a leopard. It appears to have been a false melanistic coat colour variation as was a dark leopard that George Hamilton-Snowball shot in the 1920s in the Damasia district in the Aberdares of Kenya.

Of the blackish leopards that were collected from 1870 to the early 1900s in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, seven were from near Grahamstown in the Albany district, another from near Idutywa in the Transkei region and one from the Humansdorp district. The skin of the leopard that was collected in 1886 from near Collingham, 32 km east of Grahamstown apparently showed melanistic tendencies but had no rosettes or spots at all on most of the skin. The specimen that was collected in 1889 from near Idutywa was described by the Kaffrarian Watchman newspaper of King William’s Town of 16 October 1889 as being almost black with a few yellow marks but it reputedly weighed some 86 kg which is much heavier than the leopards of the southern Cape mountains. The specimen from near Humansdorp was described as being almost black on a yellow background with indistinct black spots elsewhere on the body. There were no spots on the head which was more yellow.

Two of the skins from Grahamstown were housed in the British Museum of Natural History, one specimen was mounted in the South African Museum, two specimens were mounted in the Albany Museum and the head of a specimen that was collected in the Humansdorp district was mounted in the Port Elizabeth Museum. Unfortunately the mounted specimens in the Albany Museum were destroyed or damaged in a fire in 1941, while the specimen in the Port Elizabeth Museum became lost when the museum moved to new premises. At least one of the specimens was collected in 1870 by Mr Buckley on his farm Bucklands 10 km north-east of Fort Brown on the Great Fish River and some 40 km north-east of Grahamstown. However, none of the leopards was totally black.

Recently a person who hunts caracals Caracal caracal with dogs reported that his dogs had treed a black leopard in the Tsitsikamma Forest. Moreover, no specimens or photographs are available of the black leopards that are currently said to occur near Lydenburg in the Mpumalanga province. The existence of black leopards in Africa therefore remains rare and those in South Africa require more verification.



Anon 2013. Anomalous felids. http://www.messybeast.com/genetics/anomalous-bigcats.html

Kingdon, J 1977. East African mammals. Volume lll A: Carnivores. Chicago, Chicago University Press, pp 348 - 353.

Skead, C J 2007. The historical incidence of the larger land mammals in the broader Eastern Cape, second edition. A Boshoff, G Kerley and P L Lloyd (Eds). Port Elizabeth, Centre for African Conservation, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, pp 526 - 534.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago, Chicago University Press, pp 319 - 320.

article by: Prof J du P Bothma


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