CONTENT WARNING: Contains an image of an animal skin some people may find distressing.
Welcome to this Dionysiac festival, a veritable orgy of wine, dancing and leopards! Because for most people you think ‘leopard’ and you think of these beautiful spotted cats dancing across the savannah, creeping in the trees of various African plains.
To me, though, they are associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and good times. You might be wondering, then, why it’s taken me so long to get to them…
…Recovering alcoholic, here. Wine and good times are best avoided! I’m a rehabilitated Dionysiac!
This would be the only extant species of the genus Panthera that we have not covered yet. At this point I have written about all the extant big cats.
Think about that for a minute.
For all the diversity there are only five species of big cat in the genus Panthera; P. Leo, the lion; P. tigris, the tiger; P. onca, the jaguar; P. uncial, the snow leopard; and finally, today’s cat, P. pardus, the leopard.
As you’ll know if you read my article cheetahs are not in the Panthera genus, being the sole member of the genus Acinonyx and, what’s more, being evolutionarily closer to the Puma lineage than the Panthera lineage, the puma and cheetah for all that they may be ‘big’ cats are not ‘Big cats’ in the sense of being closely related to the Pantherinae.
It’s disheartening to know there are so few big cats, but I can think of genus level extinctions in recent time. It’s not that we’ve driven all the big cat genera out, if you think about the role they fulfil many of these cats are apex predators. In a society there’s room aplenty at the top and people just like to hog the peak. In trophic levels, when we’re talking food chains and webs, there’s only so-much room at the top.
These Pantherines, then, are the pinnacle. Every one of them expertly adapted killing machines. Representatives of that cruel brutality, the reality of life, tooth and claw, as it truly is. Yet, they play, they roar at each other, they roll around in the dust, they slow-blink and head-boop.
In the epilogue of ‘On Aggression’ Konrad Lorenz (himself somewhat a problematic tooth-and-claw type, having been a scientist in the Nazi regime – Much of his post-war work seems to have been an exploration of his own mistakes and the mistakes of human inhumanity) discusses human weaponry, and the fact that nature evolved its weaponry in tandem with behaviour whilst humans are evolving weaponry at an alarming rate with a brain still hard-wired to huck rocks at each other.
Aggression in nature is almost always tapered with submission. These cats are majestic examples of the most honed killing machines on the planet but they know when to put tooth and claw away and when to use them.
It’s honestly beautiful. To me, anyway. But I’m weird.
Anyway, the leopard, most famous for its African population but leopards were once widespread throughout Europe, populations still exist across Asia as far as Siberia where the Amur leopard remains one of the most endangered sub-species of any big cat. In fact they are the member of the Panthera genus with the most extant (currently living) sub species because of this distribution. The African, Indian, Javan, Arabian, Amur, Caucasian, Indochinese and Sri Lankan leopards are all currently living sub-species! Many of them, sadly, critically endangered. They have the largest distribution of all the big cats.
They’re a big, husky cat. Usually smaller than, but they can be up to the size of a large male lion; they’re a good bulk. They use this musculature to perform a role not dissimilar to their very similarly looking New World cousin, the Jaguar. The leopard is partially arboreal, so they need a solid muscular frame for climbing trees, but one thing they also do is drag their prey up trees! So they need to be strong enough to lift themselves and possibly a hundred kilos or so of meat into the boughs of a tree.
They’re easily spotted. Literally, they’re spotted! Or rather they have rosettes, ring-like dark spots. One of the tell-tale ways to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard (so often confused…) is to look at the centre of the rosettes. Jaguar have larger rosettes for the most part, but they also usually have little spots inside the rosettes. Leopards do not, and their rosettes are often smaller, tighter circles. Their fur is also quite dense and soft and they demonstrate countershading (being paler on the belly than on top) implying some degree of hiding above. They are known to hide in trees, and hunt from trees, so this adaptation fits.
Another thing they have in common with jaguars is a propensity for melanism. This is a genetic mutation that causes an overproduction of the pigment melanin, which makes things dark – in the case of cats, black. The so-called ‘black panther’ is often one of either a jaguar (most likely) or a leopard (a little rarer). But they both have this as a surprisingly common mutation. Their lifestyles make it obvious why, crepuscular/nocturnal hunters that use shadows and tree cover to surprise their prey – looking like a shadow is beneficial. A black lion? Now that stands out among the yellow grass!
This colouration, size, musculature camouflage – It all screams diversity! Unlike species such as lions or cheetahs who have distinct prey preference leopards are very broad in their diet, opportunistic, adaptable to changing conditions from plains and steppes to rainforests and mountains. If you’re looking for the all-terrain, all-purpose pantherine, this is the one! It’s why they were once so disperse and honestly the only reason they’re not common across Europe to this day is because humans massively deforested the areas and persecuted them because they probably kill humans!
In terms of size they’re dimorphic. Males tend to be a fair bit larger than females. A big male can be 70cm at the shoulder, up to 2m in body with up to 1m of tail. It’s a big cat. Females you can knock anywhere from 10-30% off that.
They tend to be solitary, unless they’re a mother with a cub. They are also territorial so they will patrol and maintain a territory usually keeping a solid km or so between each other, at least according to observations from the Kruger National Park. Conflict and confrontation, to go back to my Lorenzian learning, is naturally rare. The last thing a cat like this wants to do is fight a cat like this! It’s certain to end in a wound that will take time and resources to heal, at worst it ends in a pointless death.
During the day they spend most of their day looking like-butter-wouldn’t-melt just sleeping in trees. Being opportunists they are not against a day-kill should one present itself, but mostly they hunt during twilight (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal). In Africa they prefer things like impala, bushbuck etc. but they’ll chomp a monkey, a jackal, foxes – Even evidence of cheetah (whether hunted or scavenged is unclear) has been found in scatological (shit) analysis.
Where they are not in competition with other, possibly larger, cats like lions or tigers they will take on bigger prey, though…Including – and this is not a fucking joke – giraffe!
In desert regions they’re also partial to a side of vegetables! Not for the nutritional properties, for as generalist as leopards are they are still obligate carnivores. Where it is particularly arid, though, they will eat desert vegetation to get valuable water. Cats have exceptionally good kidneys and extract most of their needed water from their animal prey, however, particularly in arid regions this might need topping up either with a stop at a watering hole or oasis or – as has been demonstrated, by munching a few moisture rich veggies.
Intraspecific (within the species, leopard on leopard) competition and violence might be rare but these cats are living with some of the biggest, hardest, cleverest predators in the world. Competition with lions, tigers, hyenas, wolves, wild dogs etc. is common. In fact lions have been known to kill and eat leopards, particularly younger or weaker ones. Leopards often lose kills to hyena such as the spotted hyena or the brown hyena – this is one of the reasons they tend to drag their kills to the trees in areas with stiff competition.
They also have Nile crocs to contend with and these crocodiles would eat an anything if it stopped to drink nearby!
Their biggest threats are, as with most big cats, though, humans. Habitat fragmentation particularly is the danger. The use of their native habitats for humane exploitation not only reduces their home ranges, their prey species etc. but it also puts them in direct conflict with humans where they will end up getting killed or poached. Trophy hunting is also still disturbingly common and, frankly, I wish any wildlife poacher a true hunter’s death of being eaten by wild animals, they can fuck themselves.
Trade in skin and bones is still common across many areas of their range, especially in Africa and livestock farmers are known to poison potential big-cat prey species. It’s a fucking tragedy and I understand it can be difficult to make a living. Thankfully there are many projects and charities aimed at helping people understand the value of the amazing cats they’re living with and encouraging different ways of life that allow peaceful co-existence of cats and humans.
But you’re not here for any of that? Are you?
You wanna know about leopards and Dionysus! Well firstly it should be said that in Ancient times ‘Leopard’ often meant cheetah, not the leopard as we know it today. It can be difficult because artistic representations of the two cats often look quite similar!
But whether it’s a cheetah or a true leopard, Dionysus is associated with leopards. He is often represented riding a leopard or wearing a leopard skin.
As with many nocturnal species there is something ‘of the night’ about the leopard and, prior to obnoxious, non-gnostic Christian traditions, paganism and other religions had a lot of respect for the night. Yes, night was danger, night was to be feared, but that’s exactly why it must be respected rather than denied!
Leopards have this magic and mysticism about them. This was a beast that slept during the day but was alive and alert at night. What better beast to represent Dionysus, the party-god! The unleashing of the beast in all of us that comes through too much wine, intoxication, around the fire of an evening!
So let’s raise a toast! To this most noble beast! Relaxed and savage, violent and calm, the duality in all of us. This beautiful, stout, spotted cat! To the leopards out there, and to the leopard in all of us! Blessed be the reveller, the hunter, the beast of the night! May we know when to use tooth and claw, and when to sleep off the sun! HERE HERE!
Thinking this is a purr-fect time for more cat articles screaming “Check MEOWT!”? Gotcha Covered. Catch up with our Caturday Specials!
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Or if you’re feline in the mood, read our Top Ten Cat Species List!
Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.