How leopards hunt?
Female leopards are often assumed to be the only ones actively hunting at night. The new research shows that this is not the case. A team of researchers from the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen has for the first time monitored leopards in the Tanzanian rainforest for ten months.
“We have observed that males are also active at night. However, we are not aware of any previous observations of leopards that have also been active during the day,” says Frida Nordahl Sørensen, a doctoral student at the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen.
“The observations were made during a large survey of leopards in Tanzania. We were trying to learn more about the nature of the hunting system of the leopards, which are usually thought to be active at night.”
The researchers had the cameras in place in the Tanzanian rainforest for ten months. The cameras are hidden in trees and are activated when the leopards pass close to them. The cameras have the capacity to film up to 100 metres away. The footage can be viewed by anyone with a computer.
“The camera positions were chosen to provide maximum flexibility for both observation and analysis,” says Frida Nordahl Sørensen.
The data shows that both sexes of leopards hunt at night. However, the researchers have found that the activity levels of the males differ significantly from those of the females.
“We have observed that leopards can hunt both during the day and at night. But it is much more common for males to hunt at night,” says Frida Nordahl Sørensen.
The data also shows that both sexes of leopards hunt in the same areas. However, the hunting behaviour of the males is much more varied.
“In general, the male leopards hunt alone. However, they hunt together in the same area, and they use the same hunting techniques,” says Frida Nordahl Sørensen.
Here are some other, surprising things scientists have learned about these animals.
Leopards are scared of urine
One study found that female leopards in captivity are afraid of the smell of urine from male leopards. Female leopards tend to avoid other females’ urine, and they avoid the urine of other leopards as well.
“That’s one of the big things about leopards,” said Scott Manda, an ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama who studies leopards in Botswana. “They’re very territorial.”
Male leopards, on the other hand, tend to mark their territory by spraying urine, Manda said.
“Leopards have the most remarkable sense of smell of any big cat,” he said. “And when a male is in the territory of another male, he will mark the ground with his urine.”
Leopards use urine to mark their territory, and they mark their territory with different scents, said Deborah Binder, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Missouri who studies leopards in Tanzania. Male leopards mark their territory with their scent, while female leopards mark their territory with their urine, she said.
The urine-marking system helps female leopards recognize each other, but it also serves to drive away other females. Male leopards can spray urine at other males, so they can drive them away, too.
Leopards have trouble reproducing in captivity
Female leopards in captivity have trouble getting pregnant, said Alison Kock, an animal behaviorist at the University of Bristol in England.
“This is because females only give birth every two to three years,” she said. “They need a lot of time to rest and to build up their strength to have a healthy pregnancy.”
In addition, leopards have very low reproductive rates. In some studies, researchers have found that only one or two out of 10 leopards that were fitted with GPS collars gave birth.
Leopards may be having trouble reproducing because they are living in urban areas, where they are competing for resources with humans, said P. Sathyamurthy, a wildlife ecologist at the Wildlife Institute of India in Pune, India.
“These leopards have no space to live,” he said. “If you have humans in the area, you have people coming to your habitat, and that is not good for the survival of the leopard.”
Leopards are shy and timid
Male leopards are larger and stronger than females, and they tend to dominate their territories. Females, however, are much smaller than males and are usually subordinate to males, Manda said.
Female leopards in the wild tend to be shy and stay in their territory, said Jatinder Bhatti, an ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India.
“The female is the smallest of the group, and she’s the most shy,” he said. “She’s very secretive and doesn’t venture out very much.”
Female leopards in captivity are also timid, said Christine Switzer, an ecologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who studies leopards in South Africa.
“In captivity, leopards tend to be aggressive,” she said. “In the wild, they’re much more shy.”
Leopards have the ability to hear over 1,000 times louder than humans
Leopards have a high-pitched, shrill call that sounds like a bird chirping, according to a study published in March.
“Leopards are very vocal,” Switzer said. “They have a ton of vocalizations, and they are very vocal when they’re breeding.”
The call helps the leopard communicate with other leopards, Manda said.
“They’re looking for females to breed with,” he said. “If a male finds a female, he will go to her and use his vocalizations to call her to him.”
Leopards may sound like a bird, but they are much more dangerous than birds, Switzer said.
“If you hear a bird call, you think, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” she said. “You don’t think of it as a threat.”
Leopards may be using this call to communicate with other leopards in their territory, she said.
They may have changed their diets
In the past, leopards ate meat from prey such as impala, but researchers have found that they have changed their diets to eat smaller prey, including goats, mice and even dogs.
“The population has gotten very small,” Switzer said. “They’re trying to find something else to eat.”
Leopards used to live in much more diverse habitats, she said. Now, they are in a narrow strip of land in the savanna.
“That area is now in competition with humans,” she said. “There’s competition for food, for territory, for space.”
If they are unable to adapt to their changing environment, leopards may be forced to become extinct.
“We need to understand what is driving their decline,” Switzer said. “We need to understand what the causes are.”