Leopards Are Indeed Changing Their Spots - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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A shift in their migratory pattern is making the already endangered cat even more vulnerable.

By Eromo Egbejule

At the age of 3, young male leopards leave the area where they were born and migrate to new territories. A phenomenon known in wildlife studies as natal dispersal, it is the first — and for many, only — movement from their birthplace. That new location then becomes their breeding ground as they mate with local females there.

Now, pathbreaking new research shows that leopards are changing that behavior. Scientists have found that an uptick in poaching and other threats are making male leopards stay closer to home. It’s a phenomenon that risks increasing inbreeding, which could devastate the already endangered species.

A study of a sample of leopards in South Africa has shown that 22 percent of males were still living in their childhood habitat even after crossing the age of 3. 

Traditionally, long-distance migration is common for the animals, which surprisingly are not keen on chasing prey over extended distances. Scientists at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Mongolia fitted a snow leopard with a satellite tracking collar in the Khukhserkh Mountain and, two years on, found it in another mountain range 75 miles away from its originating point. Like young adults who are keen to leave home at age 18, young leopards migrate in order to begin their family and establish territorial control over new areas.

Kruger National Park.  Leopard (Panthera pardus) on a branch of a tree.  South Africa.

A leopard in South Africa’s Kruger National Park

That’s important for population distribution and gene flow, say experts. Without it, “the risk of breeding with mothers or sisters (who have lower rates of dispersal away from maternal areas)” increases, says Lourens Swanepoel, professor of conservation ecology at the University of Venda, South Africa.

The shift that’s making male leopards stick around in the territories where they were born needn’t be permanent. What’s been seen so far is not a case of leopards “changing their genetic behavior as changes in genetic makeup will take decades of evolution to occur,” explains Swanepoel.

But the crisis is deepening. Studies have shown how leopard populations have declined steeply in major host nations — by at least 75 percent in India, for instance. Other research has shown that leopards have lost about three-fourths of their historic habitat.

If that makes male leopards change their migratory patterns permanently, it could hasten the animal’s decline even faster.

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