Skip to main content
sdzglibrarybanner San Diego Zoo Global Library

Leopard (Panthera pardus) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

"Typical leopards" (Data from Nowak 1999)

Attribute Male Female
Body Weight 37-90 kg (82-198 lb) 28-60 kg (62-132 lb)
Head & Body Length 910-1,910 mm (3.0-6.3 ft) 910-1,910 mm (3.0-6.3 ft)
Tail Length 580-1,100 mm (1.9-3.6 ft) 580-1,100 mm (1.9-3.6 ft)

 

There is great regional variation in size, see below table

   
Length (mm)
 
Mass (kg)
Head & Body
Tail
Male
20-72
920-1830
510-935
Female
18-43
950-1270
640-850
Summarized from measurements of cats from Namibia; Cote d'Ivoire; northern, western and eastern Cape provinces; and South Africa as reported in Hunter et al. 2013.

Characteristics

Large, powerful cats (from Hunter et al. 2013)

  • Strong limbs
    • Forequarters robust
    • Hindquarters slender

Coat (pelage) variable (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Color and patterns distinct in various habitat types
    • Darker in forests; paler in arid, open habitat
  • Ground/background color
    • Pale cream, buff-gray, shades of orange, tawny-brown, or dark rufous; graduating lighter toward belly, chest, throat, chin, and undersides of tail
  • Body with spots placed into rosettes
    • Small, black spots surrounding unspotted center darker than the ground color
    • Camouflage pattern provides concealment from prey, also predators and competitors
    • Distal portions of limbs, belly, throat, and tail with solid, large black spots; continuing on to feet
    • Face and neck with small, solid, black spots
  • All black (melanistic) individuals
    • Typically rare, though common in some south-east Asian populations
    • Fixed trait in Peninsular Malaysia and southern Thailand; nearly all leopards are black (Kawanishi et al. 2010)
    • Unique mutation in Agouti Signaling Protein gene (ASIP) responsible for melanism in leopards (Schneider et al. 2012)
      • Autosomal recessive pattern of inheritance; individuals must inherit recessive gene variants from both parents to express the trait (Robinson 1970)
    • Spots are present, but obscured or difficult to see

Body features

  • Tail
    • Long, densely haired, white underside (Hunter et al. 2013)
      • Proportionally longer than that of the lion or tiger, typically (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
      • Mothers may use white underside to signal cubs when traveling (Schaller 1972)

Ears (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Short and rounded
    • Pale hair patch on back of ear, at tip
  • Moveable
    • Able to scan for sound, possibly providing better targeting of prey (Turner and Anton 1997)

Whiskers/vibrissae

  • Also known as mystacials (Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Modified enlarged hairs, ringed with sensory nerves at their base (Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Located on the upper lips (Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Detect position of prey within mouth; may assist with precision biting (Turner and Anton 1997)
  • Color
    • White

Eyes (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Color
    • Yellow-green
    • Rarely greenish-blue or rust-brown
  • Night vision (Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Common in many nocturnal animals
    • Specialized reflective cells (forming the tapetum lucidum) line the eye behind the retina
    • Deflected light returns to the retina
    • Responsible for eye-shine observed when light is thrown on the eyes in darkness
  • Binocular vision
    • Provides increased depth perception; important for catching fast-moving prey (Turner and Anton 1997)

Feet (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Forefeet larger than hindfeet
  • Claws
    • Sharp, curved; located on all digits
    • Constructed of keratin (Turner and Anton 1997)
    • Retracted by ligaments, preserving sharpened edges (Gonyea and Ashworth 1975)
    • Deployed by contracting the flexor muscles, pulling down and extending the digit (Gonyea and Ashworth 1975)
    • Function to grasp prey and climb trees (Turner and Anton 1997)
  • 5 digits on forefoot; 4 on hindfoot (as in all cats)
    • 1st digit on forefoot with dew claw; largest, resting above the ground, not visible unless protracted

Teeth (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless otherwise noted)

  • Canine teeth robust
    • Posterior edges for cutting (Harrison and Bates 1991)
    • Roots large, composing over half of tooth length; anchored to minimize breakage
  • Post canine space wide (Harrison and Bates 1991)
  • Cheek teeth adapted for slicing
    • Sliding past one another in a scissor-like action (Turner and Anton 1997)

Tongue (from Hunter et al. 2013 unless)

  • Sharp papillae (keratinized, backward-facing hooks)
    • For ripping fur and flesh from prey
    • Assist with grooming

Features of roaring cats (from Hunter et al. 2013)

  • All Panthera have an ossified hyoid bone
    • Enables creation of loud roars

Sexual Dimorphism

Males larger than females (from Hunter et al. 2013)

  • Body mass and skull size
    • 30-100% heavier; c. 30% typically
    • Skull of males larger with distinct sagittal crest
  • Canine teeth of males larger

Other Characteristics

Largest and smallest subspecies (from Houssaye and Budd 2009)

  • Most massive subspecies
    • Persian leopard (P.p. saxicolor), up to 90 kg (198 lb)
  • Smallest subspecies
    • Arabian leopard (P.p. nimr), 20-30 kg (44-66 lb)

Chromosome number

  • 19 chromosome pairs (2n=38) (Werdelin 2013)

Spots (from Hunter et al. 2013; Miththapala et al. 1989)

  • Pattern unique to individuals
    • Useful in identification

Amur (P.p. orientalis) Subspecies

Pelage (from Heptner and Sludskii 1992)

  • Soft coat
    • Hair long and dense
      • Length 30-50 mm on the back and 70 mm on the abdomen
  • Rosettes
    • Spots numerous/prominent
      • Pure black surrounding light-colored centers only somewhat darker than main background color
    • Larger, thick-rimmed, and more evenly spaced than other leopards (Kelly et al. 2013)

Male body measurements (from Heptner and Sludskii 1992)

  • Mass
    • c. 32-48 kg (71-106 lb) typically; 60-75 kg for largest individuals
  • Body length
    • 1070-1360 mm (3.5-4.5 ft)
  • Tail length
    • 820-900 mm (2.7-3.0 ft)

Leopard Spots

Leopard spots

a leopard's face

Leopard coats are spotted with rosettes, small black spots surrounding a dark center.

Spots grade to solid black toward the face, belly, and distal portions of the limbs.

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

Page Citations

Gonyea and Ashworth (1975)
Harrison and Bates (1991)
Heptner and Sludskii (1992)
Houssaye and Budd (2009)
Hunter et al. (2013)
Kawanishi et al. (2010)
Kelly et al. (2013)
Miththapala et al. (1989)
Nowak (1999)
Robinson (1970)
Schaller (1972)
Schneider et al. (2012)
Turnbull-Kemp (1967)
Turner and Anton (1997)
Werdelin (2013)

SDZG Library Links