The leopard Panthera pardus, is a member of the Felidae family and the smallest of the four "big cats" in the genus Panthera, the other three being the tiger, lion, and jaguar. Because of its declining range and population, it is listed as a "Near Threatened" species on the IUCN Red List.
The nine subspecies recognised by IUCN are:
Compared to other members of the Felidae family, the leopard has relatively short legs and a long body with a large skull. It is similar in appearance to the jaguar, but is smaller and more slightly built. Its fur is marked with rosettes similar to those of the jaguar, but the leopard's rosettes are smaller and more densely packed, and do not usually have central spots as the jaguars do. Both leopards and jaguars that are melanistic are known as black panthers.
Head and body length is usually between 90 and 165 cm. The tail reaches 60 to 110 cm long, around the same length as the tiger's tail and relatively the longest tail in the Panthera genus. Shoulder height is from 45 to 80 cm. They are very diverse in size. Males are about 30% larger than females, weighing 30 to 91 kg compared to 23 to 60 kg for females. Large males of up to 91 kg have been documented in Kruger National Park in South Africa; however, males in South Africa's coastal mountains average 31 kg and the females from the desert-edge in Somalia average 23 to 27 kg. This wide variation in size is thought to result from the quality and availability of prey found in each habitat. The most diminutive leopard subspecies overall is the Arabian leopard, from deserts of the Middle East, with adult females of this race weighing as little as 17 kg.
Leopards are agile and stealthy predators. Although they are smaller than other members of the Panthera genus, they are able to take large prey due to their massive skulls that facilitate powerful jaw muscles. The muscles attached to the scapula are exceptionally strong, which enhance their ability to climb trees.
The Leopard has shorter legs than most felines but they are more powerful. They are able to run at a top speed of 36 miles per hour for short periods of time. They can leap about 20 feet forward and about 10 feet in the air.
Part of the reason that they are able to move so easily and so quickly is due to the strong muscles in their neck and in their shoulders. The long tail helps leopards keep balanced, and like most big cats they have retractable claws to prevent them being dulled.
Leopards move with ease across most climates, from smooth terrain, to deep snow, even hunting in water.
Leopards show a great diversity in coat color and rosette patterns. Their rosettes are circular in East Africa but tend to be squarer in southern Africa and larger in Asian populations. Their yellow coat tends to be more pale and cream colored in desert populations, more gray in colder climates, and of a darker golden hue in rainforest habitats. Overall, the fur under the belly tends to be lighter coloured and of a softer, downy type. Solid black spots in place of open rosettes are generally seen along the face, limbs and underbelly.
Melanistic leopards are commonly called black panthers, a term that also applies to melanistic jaguars. Pseudomelanism (abundism) also occurs in leopards. Melanism in leopards is inherited.
Melanism in leopards has been hypothesized to be causally associated with a selective advantage for ambush.
A rare "Strawberry" leopard has been confirmed to exist at South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve. It is thought the leopard has erythrism, a little-understood genetic condition that's thought to cause either an overproduction of red pigments or an underproduction of dark pigments.
Leopards are highly solitary animals that mark their territory using scent markings and by producing rough, rasping calls that are said to sound like the sawing through coarse wood.
Leopards are versatile, opportunistic hunters, and have a very broad diet. They feed on a greater diversity of prey than other members of the Panthera species, and will eat anything from dung beetles to 900 kg male common elands, though prey usually weighs considerably less than 200 kg. Their diet consists mostly of ungulates such as deer, followed by primates, primarily monkeys of various species. However, they will also eat rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, birds, fish and sometimes smaller predators (such as foxes, jackals and martens). In at least one instance, a leopard has predated a sub-adult Nile crocodile that was crossing over land. They stalk their prey silently, pounce on it at the last minute, and strangle its throat with a quick bite. In Africa, mid-sized antelopes provide a majority of their prey, especially impala and Thomson's gazelles.
In the open savanna of Tsavo National Park, they kill most of their prey while hunting between sunset and sunrise. In Kruger National Park, males and females with cubs are more active at night. Average daily consumption rates was estimated at 3.5 kg for adult males and 2.8 kg for females.
In Asia, the leopard primarily preys on deer such as chitals and muntjacs, as well as various Asian antelopes and ibex.
They select their prey focusing on small herds, dense habitat, and low risk of injury.
In search of safety, leopards often stash their young or recent kills high up in a tree, which can be a great feat of strength considering that they may be carrying prey heavier than themselves in their the mouth while they climb vertically. One leopard was seen to haul a young giraffe, estimated to weigh up to 125 kg, more than twice the weight of the cat, up 5.7 m into a tree.
Depending on the region, leopards may mate all year round. In Manchuria and Siberia, they mate during January and February. The estrous cycle lasts about 46 days and the female usually is in heat for 6–7 days. Gestation lasts for 90 to 105 days. Cubs are usually born in a litter of 2–4 cubs. But mortality of cubs is estimated at 41–50% during the first year.
Females give birth in a cave, crevice among boulders, hollow tree, or thicket to make a den. Cubs are born with closed eyes, which open four to nine days after birth. 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 of age, the young begin to follow the mother on hunts. At one year of age, leopard young can probably fend for themselves, but remain with the mother for 18–24 months.
Leopards have been reported to reach 21 years of age in captivity.
Leopards communicate by roaring and by scent. Their roaring sounds like a person sawing through a very rough piece of wood. Roaring can define their territories or signal that they are alarmed. Leopards also purr and meow similar to domestic cats, but normally only between mother and cubs. Scent marking is done using an anal gland similar to other cats. Marks are sprayed on bushes or trees on or near the leopards territorial boundary. They claw at the tree, sharpening their claws, and then spray urine on the tree to mark it.
Leopards are normally silent. Their most characteristic vocalisation is a hoarse, rasping cough, repeated at intervals, which has been likened to the sawing of wood: once heard, this sound is not easily forgotten. This rasping call is usually given by male leopards in order to advertise their territories: it will be answered by another leopard, if there is one in the vacinity, and will then be repeated between them as they move. Leopards have individualistic, distinctive calls, and it is probably advantageous for solitary animals such as leopards to recognize one another from a distance, via vocalisations, as they generally avoid each other. Two territorial males will often grunt and growl at each other, and female leopards call when they are in oestrus. Leopards have also been known to purr during feeding.
Leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat, occurring widely in eastern and central Africa. Within sub-Saharan Africa, the species is still numerous and even thriving in marginal habitats where other large cats have disappeared. But populations in North Africa may be extinct.
Leopards are exceptionally adaptable, although associated primarily with savanna and rainforest. Populations thrive anywhere in the species range where grasslands, woodlands, and riverine forests remain largely undisturbed. In the Russian Far East, they inhabit temperate forests where winter temperatures reach a low of −25 °C. They are equally adept surviving in some of the world's most humid rainforests and even semi-arid desert edges.
Leopards in west and central Asia try to avoid deserts, areas with long-duration snow cover and areas that are near urban development. In India, leopard populations sometimes live quite close to human settlements and even in semi-developed areas. Although occasionally adaptable to human disturbances, leopards require healthy prey populations and appropriate vegetative cover for hunting for prolonged survival and thus rarely linger in heavily developed areas.
Studies of leopard home range size have tended to focus on protected areas, which may have led to skewed data; as of the mid-1980s, only 13% of the leopard range actually fell within a protected area. However, significant variations in the size of home ranges have been suggested across the leopard's range. Research in Namibia that focused on spatial ecology in farmlands outside of protected areas revealed ranges that were consistently above 100 km2 with some more than 300 km2. Admitting that their data were at odds with others, the researchers found little or no sexual variation in the size of territories.
Aggressive encounters have been observed. 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.