Leopards (Panthera pardus) are one of five species of the big cat genus Panthera, a group that also includes tigers, lions, and jaguars. These beautiful carnivores are the subject of movies, legends, and folk tales, and are common in captivity. There are nine official subspecies of leopards, as well as several proposed sub-species. Leopards are considered to be vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered animals in different areas of their range, which includes portions of African and Asia.
Fast Facts: Leopards
- Scientific Name: Panthera pardus
- Common Name(s): Leopard, pard, pardus, panther
- Basic Animal Group: Mammal
- Size: 22-22 inches tall, 35-75 inches long
- Weight: 82-200 pounds
- Lifespan: 21-23 years
- Diet: Carnivore
- Habitat: Africa and Asia
- Conservation Status: Endangered or Near Threatened depending on location
The base color of the leopard's coat is cream-yellow on the belly and it darkens slightly to an orange-brown on the back. A dappling of solid black spots is present on the leopard's limbs and head. These spots form circular rosette patterns that are golden or umber in color at the center. The rosettes are most prominent on the jaguar's back and flanks. Spots on the leopard's neck, belly, and limbs are smaller and do not form rosettes. The leopard's tail has irregular patches that, at the tip of the tail, become dark-ringed bands.
Leopards exhibit a range of color and pattern variations. Like many species of cats, leopards sometimes exhibit melanism, a genetic mutation that causes the skin and fur of the animal to contain large amounts of the dark pigment called melanin. Melanistic leopards are also known as black leopards. These leopards were once thought to be a separate species from non-melanistic leopards. Upon close inspection, it becomes apparent that the background coat color is dark but the rosettes and spots are still present, just obscured by the darker undercoat. Leopards living in desert areas tend to be paler yellow in color than those that live in grasslands. Leopards inhabiting grasslands are a deeper golden color.
Leopards have shorter legs than many other species of big cats. Their body is long and they have a relatively large skull. Leopards are similar to jaguars in appearance but their rosettes are smaller and lack a black spot in the center of the rosette.
Full grown leopards can weigh between 82 and 200 pounds. The lifespan of a leopard is between 12 and 17 years.Rudi Hulshof/Getty Images
Habitat and Distribution
The geographical range of leopards is among the most widespread of all the big cat species. They inhabit the grasslands and deserts of Sub-Saharan Africa including West, Central, South and East Africa as well as South East Asia. Their range does not overlap with jaguars, which are native to Central and South America.
Diet and Behavior
Leopards are carnivores, but their diet is among the widest of all the cat species. Leopards feed primarily on large prey species such as ungulates. They also feed on monkeys, insects, birds, small mammals, and reptiles. The diet of leopards varies based on their location. In Asia, their prey includes antelopes, chitals, muntjacs, and ibex.
Leopards hunt mainly during the night and are skilled at climbing and often carry their prey into trees where they feed or hide their catch for later use. By feeding in trees, leopards avoid being disturbed by scavengers such as jackals and hyenas. When a leopard captures large prey, it can sustain them for as long as two weeks.Anup Shah/Getty Images
Reproduction and Offspring
Leopards have multiple mates and reproduce year-round; females attract potential mates by excreting pheromones. Females give birth to two to four cubs after a gestation period of about 96 days and usually produce a litter every 15 to 24 months.
Leopard cubs are tiny (about two pounds at birth) and spend their first week of life with their eyes closed. Cub learn to walk at about 2 weeks old, leave the den at about 7 weeks, and are weaned by three months. They are independent by the age of 20 months, though siblings may stay together for several years and young leopards often stay in the area where they were born.Dietmar Willuhn/Getty Images
Leopards are more numerous than any of the other great cats, but, according to the Animal Diversity Web,
"Leopards are declining in parts of their geographic range due to habitat loss and fragmentation and hunting for trade and pest control. As a result, leopards are listed as "near threatened" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species."
Efforts are underway to protect most of their range in West Africa, but numbers are still shrinking; five of the nine subspecies of leopard are now considered to be endangered or critically endangered:
- Panthera pardus nimr - Arabian leopard (CR Critically Endangered)
- Panthera pardus saxicolor - Persian leopard (EN Endangered)
- Panthera pardus melas - Javan leopard (CR Critically Endangered)
- Panthera pardus kotiya - Sri Lankan leopard (EN Endangered)
- Panthera pardus japonensis - North Chinese leopard (EN Endangered)
- Panthera pardus orientalis - Amur leopard (CR Critically Endangered)
- Burnie D, Wilson DE. 2001. Animal. London: Dorling Kindersley. p. 624.
- Guggisberg C. 1975. Wild Cats of the World. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company.
- Hunt, Ashley. “Panthera Pardus (Leopard).” Animal Diversity Web, animaldiversity.org/accounts/Panthera_pardus/.