Although they are the smallest of the big cat species, leopards are still a powerful force to be reckoned with. In particular, their skulls are notably large and their jaws are so powerful that they can take prey much larger than themselves. Their shoulder muscles are also particularly strong, and give leopards their unique ability to climb trees often whilst carrying remarkably heavy kills. Leopards climb back down from trees headfirst. Their powerful shoulders also help them in the leaping and jumping ability – with a 6m horizontal leap and a 3m vertical jump. Leopards can swim, although not as well as other big cat species such as tigers. Although not known for speed, leopards can run very fast, at over 36 miles per hour.
Like the house cats we are all familiar with, leopards make sounds with their throat, known as vocalisations. Leopards are furtive in their nature, so although they don't rely on vocalisations as much as some big cat species, they still have a variety at their disposal. Leopard cubs begin to vocalise at a very young age. When play fighting with their siblings cubs will make squeaking and growling sounds. During this process they are learning about both the capabilities of their voice and the fighting process. Once grown up, males most commonly make a noise sort of like a rasping cough or bark to advertise their presence to others. Unlike other big cats, they do not really roar. During fights between males, snarling, growling and hissing noises are commonly heard. Remarkably, leopards have also been known to purr when content, most often when feeding.
Leopards can blend into their environment incredibly well, primarily because of their instantly recognisable spotted coat, Despite being instantly recognisable the spots actually makes it easier for leopards to blend in, because a disrupted pattern is harder to see than a blank pattern. Because of their spots, leopards are sometimes confused with cheetahs, another spotted cat species that it lives alongside in some areas of Africa. But cheetahs have a different type of spot – a solid black spot that is spread evenly around the body, rather than a patchy rosette that forms in a unique pattern on leopards. The spots on leopards are known as rosettes because they look so much like black roses. The cheetah is also different physically, having a much thinner build and with longer legs that make it much taller.
The incredibly wide range leopards live in means that a change in their iconic golden coat with black rosettes can be observed to change slightly in relation to area. In East Africa the rosettes are commonly circular, but in South Africa they become squarer, and increase in size in Asian leopards – so perhaps leopards really can change their spots! Like the fingerprints of a human, the pattern of rosettes on the coat of a leopard is completely unique. The dominant colour of the coat also varies; savannah leopards are reddish brown, desert leopards pale yellow and greyer coats are found on leopards from cooler areas. Jungle dwelling leopards have a much darker golden coat. All cubs start out with quite a grey coat, colour only develops over time as the cubs grow older. In all leopards, the fur under the stomach is soft and downy in texture and lightly coloured, and spots in this area as well as on the face and limbs are solid, rather than the patchy rosettes found on the body.
Leopards vary in actual size quite dramatically, but overall they are the smallest of the big cat species. The length of the head and body in total can be between 90 and 165cm, and leopards can be between 45 and 80cm high. Males are about 30% larger than females, meaning that leopards are sexually dimorphic. Males weigh between 30 and 91kg, whereas females only weigh between 23 and 60kg. The tails of leopards are usually between 60 and 110cm long. This is long compared to the height and length of the body, but is proportional to the length of other big cats.
Variety in size is often attributed to the variety in availability and quality of prey in the different habitats leopards are found in. If more prey of a higher quality is available, more nutrients are available to the leopards, and so the growth potential is higher. For example, very large individuals have been found in Kruger National Park in South Africa, but in mountainous areas of South Africa very small individuals have been recorded. Variation in size is also seen between subspecies. This is likely to be due to leopards gradually adapting to the different environmental pressures in the different regions in addition to the different levels of food availability. In some areas it may be more beneficial to be smaller, in others to be larger. Here's a reminder of the nine officially recognised leopard subspecies:
Leopard,"Panthera pardus pardus" - Found in: Africa
Persian Leopard, "Panthera pardus saxicolor" - Found In: Central Asia
Arabian Leopard, "Panthera pardus nimr" - Found In: Arabia
Javan Leopard, "Panthera pardus melas" - Found In: Java
Indian Leopard,"Panthera pardus fusca" - Found In: Indian Sub-Continent
Sri Lankan Leopard, "Panthera pardus kotiya" - Found In: Sri Lanka
North China Leopard, "Panthera pardus japonensis" - Found In: Northern China
Indochinese Leopard, "Panthera pardus delacouri" - Found In: Southeast Asia And Into Southern China
Amur Leopard, "Panthera pardus orientalis" - Found In: Russian Far East, Korean Peninsula & North-Eastern China
In scientific terms, Panthera is the genus and pardus is the species. Scientific names are always written in Latin, and are always in italics. All leopards could be simply named Panthera pardus, the third word indicates the subspecies. All the subspecies have common names to make it easier for us to talk and write about them.
The Arabian Leopard, found primarily in the deserts of Arabia, is the smallest subspecies of leopard. When you think of desert conditions, this is highly logical. Females of this species can weigh a tiny 17kg! Males weigh around 30kg. The Sri Lankan Leopard is one of the largest subspecies of leopards.