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Leopard (Panthera pardus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Crepuscular or nocturnal typically

  • Hunt and travel at night
    • 69% camera trap photos of leopards taken at night, one study in the Cederberg Mts., South Africa (Martins et al. 2011)
      • Hunting success may be higher on darker nights
    • West African forest leopards more active at dawn and dusk, one study (Jenny and Zuberbuhler 2005)
    • Diurnal sometimes (Bothma and Bothma 2006; Jenny and Zuberbuhler 2005)
  • Travel patterns
    • Travel distance
      • Average 9.8 km/day (6.1 mi/day), range 0.8-17.8 km/day (0.5-11.1 mi/day) (Stander et al. 1997)
    • Males generally travel further within home range each day (Stander et al. 1997)
  • Rest on ground, under cover, or in trees during the day common (Bailey 1993)
    • In trees: lie lengthwise on large limbs, legs dangling to either side; lodged in a forked limb (Bailey 1993)
  • Human activity/disturbance may influence activity patterns (Henschel and Ray 2003; Hunter et al. 2013)

Home Range

Territory size

  • Males hold larger territories than females (Stander et al. 1997)
  • Size highly variable from one region to another
Location
Habitat Type
Home Range (km2)
Study/Reference
Male
Female
Thailand (HKKWS) Forest c. 46 c. 26 Simcharoen et al. 2008
Namibia * Farmland, game-farms c. 229 c. 179 Marker and Dickman 2005
Namibia (KGR) Savannah woodland c. 451 c. 188 Stander et al. 1997
South Africa (KGNP) Kalahari desert margins c. 2182 c. 489 Bothma et al. 1997
Home range estimates for select locations illustrate the high degree of variability that exists between populations. Studies conducted outside protected reserves denoted with *.

 

Range overlap

  • Overlap in individual home ranges often high
    • Degree of overlap fluctuates within and between seasons (Stander et al. 1997)
    • Ranges of females largely overlap, more than between two males (Bothma and Coertze 2004; Stander et al. 1997)

Density

  • Dependent on many factors (from Hunter et al. 2013)
    • Energetic requirements
    • Prey density
    • Number of conspecifics and competitors

Social Groups

Solitary as adults (from Bailey 1993; Hunter et al. 2013; Stander et al. 1997 unless otherwise noted)

  • Exceptions
    • Females raising cubs
    • Male and female briefly associate during coutring
  • Leopard density
    • Varies widely across sub-Saharan Africa
      • 0.5-23.8 per km2 (0.2-9.2 per mi2) (summarized in Stander et al. 1997)

Territorial Behavior

Demarkate territory using scent

  • Scent marking by both sexes (Hunter et al. 2013)
    • Males mark more frequently than females (Bothma and Coertze 2004)
  • Forms of marking (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)
    • Spraying
      • Deposit urine and anal sac secretions
      • Most frequently done along used roads, trails, and game paths and at boundaries of territory
      • "Marking tours" of territory completed 1-3 times/week; revisiting sites c. every 10 days
    • Scratching
      • Scratched trees may serve as territorial markers (summarized in Bothma and le Riche 1995)
      • Serves as a visual and chemical signal (Bothma and Coertze 2004)

Advertise through vocal calling (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Auditory sawing
    • Also known as coughing or rasping
    • Calls may advertise territory and/or reproductive availability
    • Sound carries to 3 km (nearly 2 mi)

Aggression

Avoid confrontation

  • Largely due to social isolation

Forms of aggression

  • Growl, snarl, spit, and hiss during aggressive encounters (Hunter et al. 2013)

Play

Forms of play (from Muckenhirn and Eisenberg 1971)

  • Mock hunting and stalking
    • Cubs practice stalking mother, sibling or small animals
      • Rush at mother, rolling and tumbling together

Vocalization

Leopard vocalization audio provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library.

Limited repertoire (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Roar
    • As with lions, tigers, jaguars, and snow leopards (O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
    • Possible due to an incompletely ossified hyoid bone, located in the throat
  • Saw
    • Also known as coughing or rasping
      • Most distinctive leopard call
        • Individuals identifiable by their sawing call
      • Frequently heard at dawn and dusk
    • Long range call that may advertise territory or reproductive availability (Bailey 1993)
  • Chuffing or puffing
    • Air pushed through the nose and lips
    • Close range call
      • Typically produced during friendly encounters, such as appeasement, and courtship
  • Other vocal sounds
    • Growl, snarl, spit, and hiss during aggressive encounters
    • Purr; produced during exhalation only (Bailey 1993; Peters 2002)
    • Soft grunts by mothers to call cubs
    • Mewing by cubs and juveniles (Peters 2011)

Olfaction/Scent Marking

Leopards most often communicate with scents (from Bailey 1993 unless otherwise noted)

  • Patterns in marking
    • Males mark more often than females, 2-6 times more frequently (Bothma and Coertze 2004)
    • Increases prior to and during mating (Bothma and Coertze 2004)
  • Marking locations
    • Often deposited along frequently used trails, at trail intersections, game trails
  • Forms of marking
    • Spray urine and anal sac secretions onto shrubs, grass tufts, tree trunks and their lower branches, and into scraped patches of earth (Bothma and Coertze 2004)
      • Scraping ground with hind feet may accompany spraying
    • Rub cheeks against objects, often before spraying
    • Claw trees (Bothma and Coertze 2004)
      • Interdigital gland secretions deposited on trees, Kalahari leopards prefer Acacias (Bothma and Coertze 2004; Bothma and le Riche 1995)
    • Feces
      • Often roll in own urine and urine or feces of other animals (Bothma and Coertze 2004)

Function of scent (from Bothma and Coertze 2004)

  • Range demarcation
  • Reproductive advertisement

Scent qualities (from Bailey 1993)

  • Smell to humans
    • Detectable to c. 30 m2 (323 ft2)
    • Perceived smell varies from a powerful, musky scent to a little detectable odor

Locomotion

Walk quadrupedally

  • Travel with tails curved down, end turned slightly upward (Bailey 1993)
    • Tail held higher when investigating scent marks
  • Often assume low, crouching body posture often when crossing open areas (Bailey 1993)

 

Climb well

  • Stash kills in trees (Hunter et al. 2013)
    • Carrying carcasses exceeding own body weight
      • Anatomical adaptations: powerful forequarters and enlarged scapula assist in gaining lift (Hopwood 1947; Kingdon 1977; Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Undertaken as a series of bounds; forelimbs and hind limbs acting together (Turner and Anton 1997)

Strong swimmers, though typicaly avoid water (Guggisberg 1975)
Spring vertically (Guggisberg 1975)

Hunting

Hunt, alone at night most often (Hunter et al. 2013; Stander et al. 1997)

  • Visual hunters (Houssaye and Budd 2009)
    • Primarily attack animals on the ground (Houssaye and Budd 2009)
    • Flush arboreal prey from trees; leaping from trees onto prey seldom occurs (Hunter et al. 2013)
  • Success rate
    • 1 in every 2.7 hunts; c. 38% of all hunts

Hunting strategy

  • Stylistically similar across a variety of prey types (Stander et al. 1997)
  • Stalk prey, often for long distances
    • Generally for distances greater than 10 m (33 ft) (Stander et al. 1997)
    • Following prey for long distances (to 3400 m) possible, one study in the south Kalahari (Bothma and Le Riche 1989)
  • Stalking behavior
    • Crouch with the body nearly touching the ground (Kruuk and Turner 1967)
      • Eyes and ears fixed on prey (Kruuk and Turner 1967)
      • Approach prey to within 5 m (16 ft), typically (Stander et al. 1997)
    • Short chases, c.10 m (33 ft) for successful hunts (Stander et al. 1997)
      • Fast dash (Kruuk and Turner 1967)
      • Success increases with decreased chase distance (Stander et al. 1997)
  • Ambush prey in densely vegetated habitats (Hunter et al. 2013; Kruuk and Turner 1967)
    • Laying in wait where encounters are likely to occur; often near fruiting trees and other prey food resources; along game trails
  • Cache carcasses
    • Remove carcass to feeding spots; all except small prey (eg. rabbits or birds)
      • Often moved more than once; especially when disturbed by other carnivores (Stander et al. 1997)
      • Occasionally large distances; > 750 m (nearly 0.5 mi) (Stander et al. 1997)
      • Cached in thick undergrowth or in trees (Stander et al. 1997)
        • Rarely in kopjes, aardvark burrows, and caves (de Ruiter and Berger 2001; Hunter et al. 2013)
      • Tree cached kills often lost to scavengers , 2 of every 3 in one study (Stander et al. 1997)

Methods of killing prey

  • Asphyxiate most large prey by bite to the throat (from Bailey 1993; Hunter et al. 2013)
    • Muzzle hold for the largest prey
  • Crush back of the skull or neck for smaller prey (Hunter et al. 2013; le Roux and Skinner 1989; Turnbull-Kemp 1967)

Interspecies Interactions

Carnivore competitors

  • Tigers
    • Tigers overlap in prey preference (Harihar et al. 2011)
      • Dietary shifts by leopards to smaller prey and decreases in leopard density following reintroduction of Tigers (Harihar et al. 2011)
      • Often displace leopards to perimeter of tiger territory (Odden et al. 2010)
  • Lions
    • Lions can dictate leopard habitat use; varies depending on prey abundance and density (Vanak et al. 2013)
      • Range overlap common
  • African wild dogs
    • African wild dogs minimize encounters with leopard competitors (Vanak et al. 2013)
  • Snow leopards
    • Snow leopards share a similar diet
      • Overlap of 60-76% (in warmer and cooler months respectively)
    • Different habitat preferences limit direct competition (Lovari et al. 2013)
  • Hyena
    • Hyena scavenge at leopard kills (Stander et al. 1997; Stein et al. 2013)
  • Humans
    • Preferred prey of bushmeat hunters and leopards overlaps significantly (Henschel et al. 2011)
    • Dietary shifts by leopards to smaller prey in areas heavily hunted by humans, one study (Henschel et al. 2011)

Symbiotic relationships

  • Parasites(from Hunter et al. 2013)
    • Little disease significance
      • Mites may cause mange
    • Ticks, c. 30 species; grooming reduces infestation risk
    • Hookworms
  • Aardvark burrows used as den sites (Stander et al. 1997)

Interactions with humans

  • Leopards known to attack humans (from Nabi et al. 2009 unless otherwise noted)
    • Injuries are often fatal
      • c.49% died in one 43 month, Kashmiri study
    • Death due to blood loss, internal and external (Hejna 2010)
    • Bites directed at neck/cervical spine (Hejna 2010; Nabi et al 2009)

Cubs Playing

two leopard cubs playing

Cubs often play with one another or with their mother by practicing skills they will later need to be proficient hunters.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Vocal Communication

a leopard chasing a wilderbeast

Leopards have a limited vocal repertoire. One form of short range communication is the chuff where air is pushed through the nose and lips. Click on image above for video.

Audio and video from © ARKive. Some rights reserved

African Leopard Hunting

a leopard chasing

African leopard hunting. Leopards may stalk their prey for long distances before initiating short chases; often talking down large animals with a bite to the neck. The carcass is often carried to another location and cached. Click on image above for video.

Audio and video from © ARKive. Some rights reserved

Page Citations

Bailey (1993)
Bothma and Bothma (2006)
Bothma and Coertze (2004)
Bothma and Le Riche (1989)
Bothma and le Riche (1995)
Bothma et al. (1997)
de Ruiter and Berger (2001)
Guggisberg (1975)
Harihar et al. (2011)
Hejna (2010)
Henschel and Ray (2003)
Henschel et al. (2011)
Hopwood (1947)
Houssaye and Budd (2009)
Hunter et al. (2013)
Jenny and Zuberbuhler (2005)
Kingdon (1977)
Kruuk and Turner (1967)
le Roux and Skinner (1989)
Lovari et al. (2013)
Marker and Dickman (2005)
Martins et al. (2011)
Muckenhirn and Eisenberg (1971)
Nabi et al. (2009)
O'Brien and Johnson (2007)
Odden et al. (2010)
Peters (2002)
Simcharoen et al. (2008)
Stander et al. (1997)
Stein et al. (2013)
Turnbull-Kemp (1967)
Turner and Anton (1997)
Vanak et al. (2013)

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