LeopardThe leopard (Panthera pardus) is an Old World mammal of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four 'big cats' of the genus Panthera, along with the tiger, lion, and jaguar. Leopards that are melanistic, either all-black or very dark in coloration, are known colloquially as Black Panthers.
Once distributed across southern Eurasia and Africa, from Korea to South Africa and Spain, it has disappeared from much of its former range and now chiefly occurs in subsaharan Africa. There are fragmented populations in the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, Malaysia, and western China. Despite the loss of range and continued population declines, 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 species' success owes in part to its opportunistic hunting behaviour and its adaptability to a variety of habitats. The leopard consumes virtually any animal it can catch and ranges from rainforest to desert. Its ecological role resembles that of the similarly-sized cougar in the Americas. Physically, the spotted cat most closely resembles the jaguar, although it is of lighter build.
Physical characteristicsThe leopard is an agile and graceful predator. Although smaller than the other members of Panthera, 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, the tail reaches 60 to 110cm. Shoulder height is 45 to 80 cm. Males are considerably larger than females and weigh 37 to 90 kg compared to 28 to 60 kg for females.
One of many spotted cats, a leopard may be mistaken for a cheetah or a jaguar. 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 in southern Africa. Leopards have been reported to reach 21 years of age in captivity.
Biology and behaviorGraceful and stealthy, leopards are famous for their ability to go undetected. They are good, agile climbers, but cannot get down from a tree headfirst, because they do not have the ankle flexibility the only two cats that do are the Margay and the Clouded Leopard.
Along with climbing, they are strong swimmers but not as fond of water as tigers; for example, leopards will not normally lie in water. They are mainly nocturnal but can be seen at any time of day and will even hunt during daytime on overcast days. In regions where they are hunted, nocturnal behaviour is more common. These cats are solitary, avoiding one another. However, three or four are sometimes seen together. Hearing and eyesight are the strongest of these cats' senses and are extremely acute. Olfaction is relied upon as well, but not for hunting. When making a threat, leopards stretch their backs, depress their ribcages between their shoulder blades so they stick out, and lower their heads (similar to domestic cats). During the day they may lie in bush, on rocks, or in a tree with their tails hanging below the treetops and giving them away.
Diet and huntingLeopards are opportunistic hunters. Although mid-sized animals are preferred, the leopard will eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg male giant elands. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates and monkeys, but rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish are also eaten. In fact, they hunt about 90 different species of animals. A solitary dog is a potential prey for leopards, although a pack of dogs can tree or drive off a leopard. In Africa, mid-sized antelopes provide a majority of the leopard's prey, especially impala and Thomson's gazelles. In Asia the leopard preys on deer such as chitals and muntjacs as well as various Asian antelopes and Ibex.
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. Storing carcasses up trees keeps them away from other predators such as spotted hyenas, jackals, tigers and lions, though the latter will occasionally be successful in climbing and fetching the leopard kills.
One survey of nearly 30 research papers found preferred prey weights of 10 to 40 kgs, with 25 kg 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.
Although most leopards will tend to avoid humans, people are occasionally targeted as prey. Most healthy leopards prefer wild prey to humans, but cats who are injured, sickly or struggling with a shortage of regular prey often turn to hunting people and may become habituated to it. In the most extreme cases, both in India, a leopard dubbed "the Leopard of Rudraprayag" is claimed to have killed over 125 people and the infamous leopardess called "Panar Leopard" killed over 400 after being injured by a poacher and thus being made unable to hunt normal prey. The "Leopard of Rudraprayag" and the "Panar Leopard" were both killed by the legendary hunter Jim Corbett. Man-eating leopards are considered bold and commonly enter human settlements for prey, more so than their lion and tiger counterparts. However 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.
ReproductionA male may follow a female who catches his attention. Eventually fighting for reproductive rights can take place. Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round (India and Africa) or seasonally during January to February (Manchuria and Siberia). The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–3, but infant mortality is high and mothers are not commonly seen with more than 1–2 cubs. The pregnant females find a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to give birth and make a den. Cubs open their eyes after a period of 10 days. The fur of the young tends to be longer and thicker than that of adults. Their pelage is also more gray in color with less defined spots. Around three months the infants begin to follow the mother out on hunts. At one year of age leopard young can probably fend for themselves but they remain with the mother for 18–24 months.
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