The leopard /ˈlɛpərd/ (Panthera pardus) is one of the five “big cats” in the genus Panthera. It is a member of the Felidae family with a wide range in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, West Asia, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia to Siberia.

Compared to other members of the Felidae, 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 lightly 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.

The leopard’s success in the wild is due to its well camouflaged fur, its opportunistic hunting behaviour, broad diet and strength to move heavy carcass into trees, its ability to adapt to various habitats ranging from rainforest, steppe to arid and montane areas and to run at speeds up to 58 kilometres per hour (36 mph).[3]

It is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because leopard populations are declining in large parts of their range. They are threatened by habitat loss and pest control. Their habitats are fragmented and they are illegally hunted so that their pelts may be sold in wildlife trade for medicinal practices and decoration.[4] They have been extirpated in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuwait, Syria, Libya, Tunisia and most likely Morocco.[1]

Leopards show a great diversity in coat colour and rosettes patterns. In general, the coat colour varies from pale yellow to deep gold or tawny, and is patterned with black rosettes. The head, lower limbs and belly are spotted with solid black. Coat color and patterning are broadly associated with habitat type. 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 coloured 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.[3]

Leopards are agile and stealthy predators. Although they are smaller than most other members of the Panthera genus, they are able to take large prey due to their massive skulls that facilitate powerful jaw muscles. Head and body length is usually between 90 and 165 cm (35 and 65 in). The tail reaches 60 to 110 cm (24 to 43 in) long, around the same length as the tiger’s tail and proportionately long for the genus (though snow leopards and the much smaller marbled cats have relatively longer tails).[5][6] Shoulder height is from 45 to 80 cm (18 to 31 in). The muscles attached to the scapula are exceptionally strong, which enhance their ability to climb trees. They are very diverse in size. Males are about 30% larger than females, weighing 30 to 91 kg (66 to 201 lb) compared to 23 to 60 kg (51 to 132 lb) for females. Large males of up to 91 kg (201 lb) have been documented in Kruger National Park in South Africa; however, males in South Africa’s coastal mountains average 31 kg (68 lb) and the females from the desert-edge in Somalia average 23 to 27 kg (51 to 60 lb). This wide variation in size is thought to result from the quality and availability of prey found in each habitat.

The leopard’s body is comparatively long, and its legs are short.[7] The largest verified leopards weighed 96.5 kg (213 lb) and reached 190 cm (75 in) in head-and-body length. Larger sizes have been reported but are generally considered unreliable.[6][8]

Variant coloration
Melanistic leopards are commonly called black panthers, a term that also applies to melanistic jaguars. Pseudomelanism (abundism) also occurs in leopards.[9] Melanism in leopards is inherited as a Mendelian, monogenic recessive trait relative to the spotted form. Pairings of black animals inter se have a significantly smaller litter size than other possible pairings.[10] The black colour is caused by recessive gene loci.[11]

The black panther is common in the equatorial rainforest of Malaya and the tropical rainforest on the slopes of some African mountains such as Mount Kenya.[12] Between January 1996 and March 2009, Indochinese leopards were photographed at 16 sites in the Malay Peninsula in a sampling effort of more than 1000 trap nights. Of 445 photographs of melanistic leopards taken, 410 came from study sites south of the Kra Isthmus, where the non-melanistic morph was never photographed. These data suggest the near fixation of the dark allele in the region. The expected time to fixation of this recessive allele due to genetic drift alone ranged from about 1,100 years to about 100,000 years.[13][14]

Melanism in leopards has been hypothesised to be causally associated with a selective advantage for ambush.[15]

A rare “strawberry” leopard was photographed in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve.[16] It is thought the leopard has erythrism, a little-understood genetic condition that causes either an overproduction of red pigments or an underproduction of dark pigments.

Similar species
Leopards may sometimes be confused with two other large spotted cats, the cheetah, with which it may co-exist in Africa, and the jaguar, a neotropical species that it does not naturally co-exist with. However, the patterns of spots in each are different: the cheetah has simple black spots, evenly spread; the jaguar has small spots inside the polygonal rosettes; while the leopard normally has rounder, smaller rosettes than those of the jaguar. The cheetah has longer legs and a thinner build that makes it look more streamlined and taller but less powerfully built than the leopard. The jaguar is more similar in build to the leopard but is generally larger in size and has a more muscular, bulky appearance.[17]

In antiquity, a leopard was believed to be a hybrid of a lion and a panther, as is reflected in its name, which is a Greek compound of λέων leōn (lion) and πάρδος pardos (male panther). The Greek word is related to Sanskrit पृदाकु pṛdāku (snake, tiger, panther), and probably derives from a Mediterranean language, such as Egyptian.[18][19]

A panther can be any of several species of large felids: the term can refer to cougars and jaguars in the American continents but (given the European origins of the word) it is largely thought to define the leopard at its source. Black panther refers to leopards with melanistic genes, which are not uncommon in rainforest habitats.[20]

The generic component of its modern scientific designation, Panthera pardus, derives from Latin via Greek πάνθηρ (pánthēr).[21] Folk etymology saw the name as a compound of παν (pan, all) and θηρ (beast).[22] However, it is believed instead to be derived from an Indo-Iranian word meaning “white-yellow, pale”; in Sanskrit, this word’s reflex was पाण्डर pāṇḍara, which was derived from पुण्डरीक puṇḍárīka (tiger, among other things), then borrowed into Greek.[19][21]

Like all of the feline family, the Panthera genus has been subject to much alteration and debate, and the exact relations between the four species as well as the clouded leopard and snow leopard have not been effectively resolved.

The leopard was among the first animals named under the modern system of biological classification, since it was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae. Linnaeus placed the leopard under the genus Felis as the binominal Felis pardus.[23] In the 18th and 19th centuries, most naturalists and taxonomists followed his example. In 1816, Lorenz Oken proposed a definition of the genus Panthera, with a subgenus Panthera using Linnaeus’ Felis pardus as a type species. But most disagreed with his definition, and until the beginning of the 20th century continued using Felis or Leopardus when describing leopard subspecies.[24] In 1916, Reginald Innes Pocock accorded Panthera generic rank defining Panthera pardus as species.[25]

It is believed that the basal divergence amongst the Felidae family occurred about 11 million years ago. The last common ancestor of the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and clouded leopard is believed to have occurred about 6.37 million years ago. Panthera is believed to have emerged in Asia, with ancestors of the leopard and other cats subsequently migrating into Africa. The researchers suggest that the snow leopard is most closely aligned with the tiger, whereas the leopard possibly has diverged from the Panthera lineage subsequent to these two species, but before the lion and jaguar.[26]

Results of phylogenetic analyses of chemical secretions amongst cats has suggested that the leopard is closely related to the lion.[27] Results of a mitochondrial DNA study carried out later suggest that the leopard is closely related to the snow leopard, which is placed as a fifth Panthera species, Panthera uncia.[28]

Fossils of early leopard ancestors have been found in East Africa and South Asia from the Pleistocene of 2 to 3.5 Ma. The modern leopard is suggested to have evolved in Africa 470,000–825,000 years ago and radiated across Asia 170,000–300,000 years ago.[29]

In Europe, the leopard is known at least since the Pleistocene. Fossil leopard bones and teeth dating from the Pliocene were found in Perrier in France, northeast of London, and in Valdarno in Italy. At 40 sites in Europe fossil bones and dental remains of leopards dating from the Pleistocene were excavated mostly in loess and caves. The sites of these fossil records range from near Lisbon, near Gibraltar, and Santander Province in northern Spain to several sites in France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, in the north up to Derby in England, in the east to Přerov in the Czech Republic and the Baranya in southern Hungary.[30] The Pleistocene leopards of Europe can be divided into four subsequent subspecies. The first European leopard subspecies P. p. begoueni is known since the beginning of the early Pleistocene and was replaced about 600,000 years ago by P. p. sickenbergi, which in turn was replaced by P. p. antiqua at around 300,000 years ago. The last form, the Late Pleistocene Ice Age leopard (P. p. spelaea) appeared at the beginning of the Late Pleistocene and survived until about 24,000 years ago in large parts of Europe.[31]