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Description: The Leopard

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Reproduction in leopards

6 September 2013

 

The basic determinants for the survival of a leopard population are nutrition and reproduction, and the nutritional status of a female leopard affects her fertility. Because a leopard is a solitary animal, the  sexes mainly make contact when mating, and the males occasionally during a territorial dispute.

When a leopard moves about its range, it continually leaves various chemical signals that are linked to urine secretion. These chemicals are hormones that are released into the urine by glands in the anal sac and are commonly known as pheromones. The word pheromone is derived from the Greek words phero to transport or bear and hormon to set in motion. These pheromones act outside the body of the secreting individual and relay many messages within and between individuals of the same species that trigger social responses. These responses are related to territorial use, alarms, trails, individual identity, food resources, sexual receptivity and others that reflect social behaviour and physiological state. They are effective even when being diluted over long distances. However, there are physical limits on the practical size of the organisms involved because only the larger animals can produce sensible concentrations rapidly enough to be useful as chemical messengers.

In leopards, the sex pheromones indicate the oestrus status of a female. Because they are solitary animals these messages are deposited on objects such as rocks, bushes or tree trunks all over the range. While scent may not travel as far as a call it is more persistent and conveys information long after an individual has left an area. A leopard spray-urinates every 100 m or so on bushes and grass tufts before scraping through the hormone-enriched urine to leave further messages in its footprints. The frequency of scent-marking increase in females in oestrus. In the Kalahari, leopards either crossed the fresh tracks of a leopard of another sex  without responding, or they turned to follow the tracks. In all the cases when the tracks were followed, mating eventually took place which implies that a message of sexual receptivity has been received. Moreover, males were attracted over a distance of as great as 17 km to a female that was in oestrus. In the Kalahari, the adult males and females were generally a mean of 17.4 km apart, but they met at a mean interval of once every 35 days, presumably to mate. The next day they would be a mean of 8.2 km apart. In a huge conservation area such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park of 37 991 km², these pheromones are vital to ensure the survival of the leopard population.

As happens in all cats, there is a well-defined mating ritual in leopards, and aggression and excessive noise during mating is more prevalent between strange females and males than between those that know each other because they occupy a portion of the same range. Mating can occur at any time of the year but the birth of cubs often peaks during the calving or lambing season of their prey. In the Kruger National Park, for example, most leopard cubs are born during the lambing season of the impalas. In leopards that know each other, the female will often roll on her back in front of a male or rub her body against his face. When she is ready to copulate, she will crouch in front of the male who mounts her to copulate. The male may grip the  female lightly with the teeth on the neck or place a front paw on the nape of her neck to subdue her until copulation has been completed. Copulation only lasts a few seconds and may occur repeatedly over a period of one to four days and an incidence is known of a pair of leopards that copulated 60 times during a period of nine hours. Copulation often ends with the female turning to snarl at the male who then leaps away. The withdrawal of his penis stimulates ovulation. Most mating incidents do not lead to pregnancy. If she does not become pregnant after copulation, a female will come into oestrus  again and again at a mean interval of 45 days until she does become pregnant and in the Kruger National Park the fertilization success is as low as 18 per cent. However, in captive leopards it can be as high as 65 per cent.

Following a gestation period of 96 to 106 days, the cubs are born in old aardvark, porcupine or warthog burrows, under a dense bush, among rocks or in hollows under trees. The male does not help to care for the cubs and only makes contact with the female during mating.

 

References:

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 385 - 390.

Sunquist, M & F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the World. Chicago: Chicago University Press, pp. 318 - 342.

 

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