A team of researchers from the James Cook University in Australia have discovered using modern imaging techniques that black leopards have spots too. The research team analyzed a prowl of black leopards on the Malay Peninsula. Until now, other scientists had difficulties in tracking the elusive cats for at least a couple of reasons. First, they are extremely rare. Second, their black fur makes them virtually indistinguishable from each other.
“It was really by accident that we discovered that if you can get that infrared flash to go off in the daytime, you could suddenly see the spots,”said Mr. Laurance.
The discovery is unique is the sense that it can help scientists study and easily classify every member of the populations making it easier for conservationist groups to try and preserve the mysterious felines.
How was the discovery made?
Scientists tweaked the infrared flash on a camera trap to be perfectly functional during daytime as well. William Laurance, co-author of the black leopard study, acknowledged that the team made the discovery by accident.
The imagery they collected during daylight hours revealed that black leopards have a complex set of spots which is very different from one animal to another. But the patterns of spots cannot be detected with the naked eye. All one can see is a uniform black coat.
A paper on the findings was published the Journal of Wildlife Management early this week. Study authors wrote in their paper that the patterns of spots helped them tell one black leopard from another in 94 percent of cases.
Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, co-author of the study, told reporters that he hoped the discovery would help governments and environmentalists alike in their conservation efforts.
Across the globe, most leopard populations have light colored fur with a visible spotted pattern. But the populations living on the Malay Peninsula are affected by a non-life-threatening condition called melanism (from melanin pigment) – which turns their fur color black.
Clements explained that their dark-colored coat helps the majestic creature survive. Black leopards need the color to hunt for their prey in the dimly lit jungle. Plus, their coat is an advantage that allows them to compete with other similar-sized animals over prey.