leopard, large carnivore of the cat family, Panthera pardus, widely distributed in Africa and Asia. It is commonly yellow, buff, or gray, patterned with black spots and rings. The rings, unlike those of the New World jaguar, never have spots inside them. Black leopards are commonly called panthers, a name sometimes used for all leopards. They are not a distinct species but merely a color variant caused by melanism, or excessive pigmentation. Close inspection reveals the typical spotting, which is obscured by the darkness of the background.
Leopards are somewhat smaller than lions and tigers; the largest males are about 7 ft (2.3 m) long, including the 3-ft (90-cm) tail. Leopards are solitary, largely nocturnal, and good climbers; they hunt both on the ground and in trees. They prey mostly on small animals such as monkeys, rodents, and birds. Leopards are found in much of Africa south of the Sahara and in parts of Asia from Israel to Korea and Indonesia. They are listed as threatened or endangered throughout their range, owing primarily to loss of their natural habitat and to illegal killing for Asian folk medicine.
A related species is the snow leopard, or ounce, Uncia uncia or P. uncia, which replaces ordinary leopards in the high mountains of Central Asia. It has long whitish fur and diffuse spotting. In summer, when the mountain animals on which it preys range to high pastures, the snow leopard may climb to an altitude of 13,000 ft (3,900 m). It usually hunts at dusk or at night. More distantly related are the clouded leopards, Neofelis nebulosa of SE Asia and Neofelis diardi (Sunda clouded leopard) of Borneo and Sumatra; they were considered a single species until the early 21st cent. The coat is more tawny and lighter in the clouded leopard, more gray and darker in the Sunda clouded leopard. Both have coats strikingly marked with black and brown; there are stripes on the face and tail, spots on the limbs, and rosettes on the body. The tail is exceptionally long and heavy and is thickly furred. Forest dwellers, clouded leopards are nocturnal and arboreal in their habits. Unlike the leopard, both the snow and clouded leopards do not roar. The snow and clouded leopards are endangered species.
Leopards are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.