Mike Unwin explains the attributes that make the leopard the most versatile of predators.
Built for purpose
The leopard’s all-rounder physique combines strength with speed and agility. Neither as heavily built as a jaguar, which relies on brute force, nor as lightly built as a cheetah, which depends upon speed, it is the most versatile of the world’s big cats, at home in almost any habitat and feeding on anything from frogs to baby giraffes. This explains why leopards thrive where most other large predators – including lions and tigers – fail.
Size of it
Leopards vary enormously in size, from 30 to 90kg, but a mature male is generally some 30 per cent heavier than a female. He is best distinguished from his mate by a broader head, with prominent ‘jowls’ and an overall sturdier build.
The white underside of a leopard’s tail tip is a conspicuous communication device with which adults may communicate their mood, or a female signal to her cubs to follow her. White spots on the back of the ears (invisible here) also aid communication, enhancing displays of aggression or submission in which the ears are flattened against the skull.
A male and female leopard get together only for mating. This takes place over the 6–7 days in which the female comes into heat during her oestrus cycle. She will court the attention of suitors by scent marking and calling. At other times she avoids adult males, which might steal her food and even kill her cubs.
The mobile, curling tail is proportionally among the longest of any wild cat. It serves as a counterweight that enables the leopard to balance when moving through the branches or switching direction in pursuit of its prey.
Hard to read
The clusters of spots on a leopard’s upper body are known as rosettes. They provide highly effective camouflage by mimicking the dappled patterns of light and foliage through which the leopard moves, and by breaking up its outline to make it less conspicuous to its prey.
A leopard has retractable claws, with which it grips and tears its prey and delivers vicious blows to adversaries. Unlike a lion, it will use all four feet as weapons, sometimes even disemboweling its prey with its hind claws. The thickly furred pads provide extra traction when climbing on smooth rocky surfaces.
Leopards are the only big cats that habitually climb trees. They do so primarily in order to safeguard their prey from other predators, such as hyenas and lions, and will haul aloft a carcass that weighs more than themselves. Adaptations for tree climbing include powerful scapular (shoulder) muscles to help haul them up the trunk, and locking ankle bones that enable them to descend headfirst.
Images courtesy of long-term Travel Africa subscriber Butch Mazzuca, who sent us a fantastic sequence of images of this mating pair of leopards, taken on safari near Selinda Camp, Botswana.
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