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Strange Nature: Meet This Amazing Creature, The Black Leopard


Strange Nature: Meet This Amazing Creature, The Black Leopard

Khan in the grassesPhoto by Tambako the Jaguar

Isn’t this one of the most beautiful animals in the whole world?  Black leopards live in dense forests in Southern India, South west China, Burma and Assam. These animals are relatively common in Java and there are more melanistic leopards than spotted ones in some areas.


In Malaysia the local people were unable to recognize a spotted leopard as they have only known about the melanistic form. Melanism is the opposite of albinism. In melanism a development of dark-colored pigment in the skin is present.

The word “melanism” comes from a Greek word that means black pigment. Pseudo-melanism or “abundism” is another type of pigmentation characterized by enlarged stripes and dark spots, which cover a large part of the animal’s body making it appear melanistic. Scientists say that melanism is an animal’s reaction to survive, as dark individuals become fitter to survive and reproduce in their surroundings because they are better camouflaged.

Although these leopards are less common in Africa, they have been seen in Ethiopia, the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. Being melanistic animal in areas like these it is thought to be advantageous, because light levels are lower, so it easier for them to blend in. This may explain why melanistic leopards are more common in these areas.

However, there are other more complex theories than camouflage theories about why melanistic leopards are common in some areas. These theories are particular pertinent to the Malaysian leopards, where black fur is the normal. Being able to hide is the most important thing to a leopard’s survival. But so are other things, like an ability to fight off disease. Scientists have tried to find a link between the color of fur and the effectiveness of the immune system.


So, it may be that during an outbreak of disease in the past, their black fur was a response to disease. Or it may be that the easier camouflage theory is right. We don’t know for sure. The only thing we really know for sure is that the first leopards came in Malaysia before about 150,000 years ago, just like the original African cats. Then over time their black fur will have developed and eventually become more common. But the real truth behind the melanistic leopards is as mysterious as themselves.

As humans, we are insatiably curious about these mysterious melanistic animals, and so they are one of the most common forms of big black cat kept in captivity. The black leopards in captivity are more temperamental than their spotted cousins, and mothers more often reject their cubs.

Even though many people claimed that this is because of their black color, actually it is a response to inbreeding.

Blacky on his branchPhoto by Tambako the Jaguar

In an attempt to ensure their cubs with black fur when born, in the past zoos bred close family member together, which has resulted in poor temperament of black leopards, and an increased likelihood of mothers rejecting their babies.Litters also tend to be smaller implying the melanistic leopards in captivity are less fertile.




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