Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa

A clouded leopard in Nashville Zoo. Look at that face and tell me you don’t see depth and understanding, the pains of a universe’s mysteries piled upon the shoulders of this gorgeous creature (Credit: Ltshears)

In case you hadn’t noticed by now I am a lexiphile. I love words for words’ sake. It separates me from the bibliophiles, who like words to be structured into tomes and books with contexts and narratives. I don’t mind so long as the word sounds good. Like with yesterday’s jaguarundi.

Well Neofelis nebulosa is a hell of a combination of words. If there was a Japanese Anime called NeoFelis Nebulosa I’d watch it, guaranteed, just on that name. It might be rubbish but I’d have to know.

It literally translates as ‘cloudy new cat.’

Technically a Pantherine, so in the same family as lions and tigers, it must surely rank as one of the smallest. They only weigh up to around 20Kg, larger males can be up to two meters in length nose to tail, but body-to-tail ratio is close to 1:1 – they’re 50/50. Only around 50cm tall at the shoulder it’s putting them around knee-height to an average person. They are diminutive in stature but actually relatively stocky of build.

If there’s one thing we should have been learning about stocky cats (short, muscular limbs, big feet, long tails?) it’s that they’re generally climbers. That makes sense since the clouded leopard makes its home in the dense jungles of Asia, from the Himalayan foothills, across much of Southeast Asia, down as far as Singapore and over into China.

Sadly, both poaching and large-scale habitat destruction and exploitation have their numbers reduced to likely below 10,000 – the IUCN lists them as vulnerable. With a pelt as beautiful as it possesses, human greed will kill animal beauty. Most of the poaching is done for furs, claws and teeth. The flesh is also sometimes used as a replacement for tiger in traditional Chinese medicine.

Mandatory Kitten Tax! A clouded leopard kitten born in Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Look at it’s little face and cute little pattable feets! (Credit: Dave Parkinson via Zooborns.com)

It is a solitary cat, and with eyes, a nose, whiskers and ears like that if it ain’t nocturnal I ain’t an ape. While they will hunt both arboreal and terrestrial prey (in the trees and on the ground) they tend to den in the trees.

One thing people need to consider about a lot of cats, especially smaller cats, is they can often be prey as well as predator. Decreasing tiger numbers likely mean the clouded leopard is less at risk of predation now, but its behavioural adaptations certainly suggest caution.

These cats are expert climbers, almost primate-like in their abilities to move through trees and branches, capable of supination (basically rotational movement) of their limbs to aid in climbing and even use their tail for extra grip.

Like many other stealthy, climby cats clouded leopards are ambush predators, preferring to wait for their prey to come to them. Like many wary cats, they also have a tendency to drag their kill high up into the trees for protection and privacy whilst they dine – how very distinguished. Despite having adaptations suggesting a preference for larger prey, observations actually reveal they have a varied, quite opportunistic diet, primates like macaque, pheasants, pangolin, deer – it’s all on the menu for the clouded leopard.

A clouded leopard with it’s mouth open showing the distinctive, extended canines. One of the adaptations that caused some to believe it hunted larger prey, like the Machairodontinae, the sabre-toothed cats, of the prehistoric past. (Credit: Eric Kilby)

I think our study of big cats has been so tainted by the ‘obvious’ cats, your lions, tigers, cheetahs – that all exhibit a clear prey preference, that we perhaps don’t consider in a densely forested environment, to literally butcher Forrest Gump, life is like a box of living meat snacks, you never know what you’re gonna get. Perhaps species like the clouded leopard, particularly with pressures due to human encroachment and habitat loss, are quite happy to eat whatever comes their way and despite adaptations seeming like they would have a preference perhaps those adaptations are just as good, if not all the better for killing other things?

I think personally, for me, the most attractive thing about the clouded leopard is there is a mystique to it.

Much like the snow leopard, it is solitary, rare, guarded. It’s like some wise, Asian forest hermit. Behind those smoky eyes, underneath that mottled, gorgeous, broken-pattern pelt rest knowledge of the secrets of the universe, long forgotten.

Maybe if you’re lucky, one day, on a trek through the foothills of the Himalayas, through the forests of Thailand, or on a mist-dense Malaysian day you’ll catch a glimpse, through the trees, of a small piece of that secret.

You won’t fully know it, but it will know you, it will see you, recognise you and avoid you. And you will be left wondering why this wandering agent of the universe’s great mysteries doesn’t trust you with them yet.

You will grow.

It’s almost like a mythological beast come-to-life. There are a lot of exceptional cats out there, but none with quite the hidden depths of the Neofelis nebulosa, the clouded leopard.

Spot the cats! Clouded leopards showing off their ability to rest, climb and mlem all in the same photo – again from Cincinnati Zoo (Credit: Charles Barilleaux)

Didn’t catch our number 9? No worries, click here to learn more about the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

Or move on to our number 7 – The jaguar, Panthera Onca – the beautiful, swimming jungle ninja of the Americas.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

19 thoughts on “Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa

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