How to identify a leopard by its spots

Being in an area that boasts a leopard density of roughly 12 leopards per 100 square kilometres, you are bound to bump into a few individuals on a constant basis. One of the questions I get asked often is, “how do you know which leopard this is?”

There is a fairly straightforward way that is used to identify and scientifically record individual leopards. This is by noting their spot patterns. Spot patterns refer to the structure of the spots that occur on the upper row of their spotted whisker lines. These spots do not change for the duration of the leopard’s life. The spots on the face typically differ from the rosettes across the rest of their body.

A leopard will be classified by the two sets of numbers. As per the images above, this leopard has 2 spots on the right side and 2 spots on the left side. This leopard is recorded as a 2:2 female leopard. The gender of the leopard is also noted.

One of my favourite ever spot patterns comes from a little leopard cub. It had a 1:1 spot pattern which I have not seen many of. Other patterns may be 2:3, 4:2, 3:3, and so on.

Besides the spot patterns, there are many other ways that one could use to identify specific leopards. Leopards are considered highly territorial animals. They move within a certain self-proclaimed boundary. This territory does shift and morph as time moves on. Over time, a leopard may even find itself in a completely different area as conditions surrounding its original territory changes.

There are many physical features that can be used to identify individual leopards. Some obvious traits would be scars. These scars mostly develop through fighting between one another. You may notice chunks missing from their ears, scarring on their noses or scars along their bodies.

Some leopards have easily recognizable body features which most likely will not change as they grow older. One might find a leopard with a kink in its tail; a leopard may have lost/damaged an eye in a fight, lost a limb etc. Even a small characteristic like a missing toe will be easily recognizable in that specific leopard’s footprint. If a leopard yawns, it may be missing one of its canine teeth.

A quick way to tell that a leopard is close by is to listen to and identify its call. Leopards rasp and the sound is very distinctive. It may sound like a rough toothed saw sawing through a thick piece of wood. Each leopard has a unique call. Spend enough time with certain leopards and you may even start to recognize their calls. I recall one leopard named Homelite, who had a very unique call. It was a fast paced call and sounded slightly different to the other leopards in the area. This leopard was a rather scary character and due to his call his name was linked to a brand of chainsaws, called Homelite.

Sometimes you may simply recognize a leopard by the way that it looks. In the same way that you may instantly be able to differentiate your friend’s dogs when you visit, you will recognize certain leopards. Whenever I see the resident male Ravenscourt, I straight away look for fat, tennis ball like cheeks.

There are also other methods that certain research institutions have developed to identify leopards. There is a big cat research institution in the area called Panthera who contribute greatly to the research of big cats and leopards in particular. They are currently running a camera trap project to monitor the movement and behaviours of leopards in the vicinity. I look forward to the discoveries and findings that this project may deliver and hope to share them with you all soon.

Are there any ways in which you have managed to identify specific leopards or any other wildlife creatures along your journeys?

7 Comments on “How to identify a leopard by its spots

  1. Cal, what a beautiful and at the same time educational blog. We had already learned so much about identifying leopards, but this is very, very good. As we learned to identify Ravenscourt, Basile and Nyelethi (that expression!) while being on game drives, this blog makes memories come to life. Time to make some new ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank You Marianne, glad you have found value from this post. It is so much fun to be able to identify the leopards. I hope you guys manage to return soon again.

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  2. Not leopards – I seldom see them – but by looking through my photographs of zebras seen in the Addo Elephant National Park I have picked out a few that appear to be the same ones. This post is absolutely fascinating and I have learned a lot from it – helped by your amazing photographs of course. It goes to show that the more time one spends with (in your case, leopards) the more one learns about individual characteristics. This post deserves to be made into a large poster on an information board!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Cal, as always, very entertaining and informative.
    Do you know if the 1:1 cub survived?
    Very rare indeed! I think there was one long time ago, Tai Dam female had a 1:1 back in 2009.
    Thank you!
    And looking forward to the Panther project report!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Laszlo, unfortunately the cub did not survive. I think this was my last image of the 1:1 cub. Interesting about the Tai Dam female too.

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  4. Pingback: Meet Thlangisa and her cubs – Wild Adventures Blog

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