Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Black Leopards Reveal Their Spots

Black leopards on the Malay Peninsula can now be identified by their spots following the development of a photographic trick that may end up saving their skins.

“Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night”, said Dr Gopalasamy Reuben Clements from James Cook University. “However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes.”

With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly show complex patterns of spots that could be used to distinguish different animals and help estimate the population size of the species.

“We found we could accurately identify 94% of the animals,” Clements said. “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

“Melanism”, where individuals that normally have patterns or colours in their coat are instead completely black, predominates in the Malay Peninsula. “This is perhaps the only known example of a wild mammal with virtually an entire population composed of black individuals,” said Dr Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham – Malaysia, who was lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

The black leopards of the Malay Peninsula are extremely rare. The researchers now want to use their new method to study black leopards in other parts of the Peninsula where there is abundant prey but few leopards to be seen. It’s thought that widespread poaching is to blame.

“Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia,” said Prof William Laurance. Leopard skins and body parts are increasingly showing up in wildlife trading markets in places such as the Myanmar–China border.

At the same time, suitable leopard habitats are disappearing rapidly as forests are felled for timber and replaced with oil palm and rubber plantations.