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Leopard (Panthera pardus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common name

  • Leopard
    • Composed of two words: leo from Latin meaning "lion" and pardos from Greek meaning "leopard" or "male panther" (Brown 1956; OED)
  • Synonymous names
    • Panther (Duckworth and Pine 2003; Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
      • Black panther for melanistic forms
    • Spotted leopard, especially west of India (Duckworth and Pine 2003)
    • Common leopard
  • Subspecific common names (Henschel et al. 2008)
    • Indochinese leopard - P.p. delacouri
    • Indian leopard - P.p. fusca
    • North Chinese leopard - P.p. japonensis
    • Sri Lankan leopard - P.p. kotiya
    • Javan leopard - P.p. melas
    • Arabian leopard - P.p. nimr
    • African leopard - P.p. pardus
    • Persian or Caucasian leopard - P.p. saxicolor
    • Amur, far east, Siberian, Manchurian or Korean leopard - P.p. orientalis (AZA 2012)
      • Bars, not leopard, in the Russian language (Heptner and Sludskii 1992)

Scientific name

  • Historical treatment
    • Up to 29 leopard subspecies described (Houssaye and Budd 2009; Henschel et al. 2008)
    • 9 are currently recognized (Houssaye and Budd 2009; Henschel et al. 2008)
  • Etymology
    • Genus Panthera, Latin word meaning "panther" (Brown 1956; OED)
    • Specific epithet pardus, from the Greek pardos, meaning "leopard" or "male panther" (Brown 1956; OED)
    • Subspecific names
    •    P.p. japonensis: absent from Japan
      • Name derived from skins purchased in that country (Houssaye and Budd 2009)

Evolutionary History

Evolutionary history and diversity of cats

  • Divergence from other carnivores
    • c. 55 million years ago (mya) - 1st felid diverged from carnivorous, common ancestor with canids (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
  • Emergence of modern felid groups
    • 10-11 mya in Asia - common ancestor of all modern felid groups (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
  • Extant felid diversity
    • 38 modern/extant, species; nearly all endangered or threatened (Davis et al. 2010)
    • Extant species represent a small subset of cat variation (Werdelin 2013)

Diversification of modern cat lineages

  • Early divergence events
    • First divergence led to modern panthera lineage, including roaring cats and two species of clouded leopard (O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
      • Great cats (Panthera) emerged 2-5 mya, the late Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010; Werdelin and Dehghani 2011)
      • Rapid radiation occurred within the Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010)
  • Leopards and lions
    • Diverged 2-3 mya from a shared common ancestor

Cultural History

Earliest depictions

Earliest written record

  • Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), c.3,100 BCE (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
    • Panther-headed Shargaz
      • A symbolic representation of cyclones or high winds; a weapon or instrument of their God Nin-urta
    • God Nergal used a club adorned with twin panther heads

Superstition, veneration and worship

  • Ancient Chinese culture
    • Regarded as Pao, representation of the God Chi
  • Ancient Egyptian culture
    • Associated with the God Osiris
      • A many-eyed, great watcher whose eyes were the Sun and the Moon (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
    • Tomb paintings depict an Egyptian leading a leopard on a leash as part of a series of offerings to Rekhmire, Vizier to Thutmosis III, 15th century (Guggisberg 1975)
    • Many depictions of funeral events were leopard skins are worn, presumably in homage to dead (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
  • Ancient Greek culture
    • Associated with Dionysus, who often wore a leopard skin, rode on a leopard's back or in a chariot pulled by a leopard and a goat (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
  • Medieval Europe
    • "Panther's breath"
      • Believed to protect against disease; synonymous with the Christian Holy Spirit (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
    • Jesus Christ symbolized as "the true Panther", by monks (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
  • African tribal culture(from Guggisberg 1975)
    • Some view(ed) leopards as receptacles for souls of the dead
    • Totem animal for certain clans
    • Akamba, of east Africa, divide into clans associated with various animals including the leopard, reported by Swedish anthropologist Gerhard Lindblom
  • Central India
    • Natives of the Satpura Range reputed to shape-shift between leopard and human forms (Guggisberg 1975)
      • Infamous man-eating leopard of Kahani assumed to be a member of this tribe

Historical understanding of leopards as animals

  • Confusion widespread across its range (Guggisberg 1975; Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
    • Uncertainty over what a leopard is
    • Continuing until recent times
  • Ancient Rome
    • Referred to as "pardus" (from Guggisberg 1975)
      • "Panthera" generally reserved for referencing the cheetah
    • Leopards and cheetahs believed to represent separate genders of the same species
    • Maneless, young lions termed "leopardus"
      • Pliny, incorrectly, described hybridization between lions and leopards
        • Describes behavior of lionesses attempting to remove the smell of an illicit love affair with a "pard"
      • Medieval Europe: "Leo-pard" referred to an illigitimate child (not an animal), perhaps drawing from the confusion perpetrated by Pliny (see above) (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)

Modern literature and visual arts

  • Fiction
    • Jungle Stories (1893-1895) by R Kipling features the character Bagherra, a black panther
    • Disney characters; often portrayed as aggressive and ferocious predators of humans and apes
      • Sabor, leopard antagonist of Tarzan
      • Nuru and Sheeta, black leopards; The Legend of Tarzan TV series
    • Children's books:
      • Leopard and the Mouse (2011), by M Briant; fiction story which carries an anti-bullying message
      • How the Leopard Got His Spots (1902), collection of fictional "just so" stories by R Kipling
      • Snuggliest Snuggle in the World (2011), fiction picture book by D Howarth
  • Documentaries
    • Leopards of Yala (2003); PBS Nature film documenting leopards in the jungles of Sri Lanka
    • Chasing Big Cats (2004); PBS Nature film documenting the big cats of Africa, including footage of leopards hunting at night
    • Eye of the Leopard (2006); National Geographic film featuring footage of a female leopard taken during three years of her life
    • Revealing the Leopard (2010); PBS Nature film
    • Leopard Queen (2010); National Geographic film with footage of a leopard mother during a 17 year journey documenting her life

    Human exploitation

    • Ancient Rome
      • Collected by ancient Romans from north Africa and Asia minor for use in circus games, gladiatorial events and as executioners (Guggisberg 1975)
    • Human induced hybridization
      • Leopards bred with lions (P. leo), tigers (P. tigris), jaguars (P. onca), and pumas (P. concolor) (Werdelin 2013)
    • Use of pelts and body parts
      • Pelts worn for religious or decorative reasons by people of many cultures, including ancient Egyptian priests, African chiefs, and wealthy Renaissance Italians (Guggisberg 1975)
      • Body parts used for their supposed magical or medicinal properties (Turnbull-Kemp 1967)
        • Claw charms believed to frighten away dangerous animals
        • Fat rubbed on various body regions believed to provide courage, cunning, or invisibility/stealth; cure for rheumatism
        • Eating the flesh of a leopard often thought to bestow the consumer with the qualities of the animal
    • Big game hunting


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Infraclass: Eutheria

Order: Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, raccoons, weasels, civets, mongooses, hyenas)

Family: Felidae (cats)

Subfamily: Pantherinae (leopard, lion, tiger, jaguar,  snow leopard)

Genus: Panthera (great or roaring cats; includes: leopard, lion, tiger, jaguar)

Species: Panthera pardus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Subspecies: P. p. delacouri (Pocock, 1930) - SE Asia into southern China
Subspecies: P. p. fusca (Meyer, 1794) - India
Subspecies: P. p. japonensis (Gray, 1862) - northern China
Subspecies: P. p. kotiya (Deraniyagala, 1956) - Sri Lanka
Subspecies: P. p. melas (Cuvier, 1809) - Java
Subspecies: P. p. nimr (Hemprich and Ehrenberg 1833) - Arabia
Subspecies: P. p. orientalis (Schlegel, 1857) - far eastern Russia, Korean peninsula and NE China
Subspecies: P. p. pardus (Linnaeus, 1758) - Africa
Subspecies: P. p. saxicolor (Pocock, 1927) - Central Asia

Above taxonomy according to ITIS 2013 and Henschel et al. 2008.

Leopards in Human Culture

Leopard on a vase

The Greek god, Dionysus was often portrayed alongside a leopard.

Image credit: © Jastrow from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Page Citations

AZA (2012)
Brown (1956)
Davis et al. (2010)
Duckworth and Pine (2003)
Guggisberg (1975)
Henschel et al. (2008)
Heptner and Sludskii (1992)
Houssaye and Budd (2009)
ITIS (2013)
O'Brien and Johnson (2005)
O'Brien and Johnson (2007)
Turnbull-Kemp (1967)
Werdelin and Dehghani (2011)
Werdelin (2013)

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