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Reproduction by and the development of leopards

26 April 2016

 

Identifying oestrus

By nature, leopards wander through their ranges in search of opportunities to hunt and reproduce. These ranges can be huge in arid environments with a poor prey base. However, as soon as a female is in oestrus and she is being attended by a male they stay in a limited part of the range until the female is no longer in oestrus after which a wanderlust takes hold of them again and they continue to travel widely. This continues until the onset of the next period of oestrus when powerful pheromone messages will bring a male and female together again. In the arid southern Kalahari, male and female leopards used mean ranges of 2104.4 and 1258.5 km² respectively and in one instance an adjacent male and female were a mean of 17.4 km apart daily, but they met four times over a period of five months at a mean frequency of once every 35 days, which falls within the oestrus period of a female leopard.

When they travel trough their ranges, females also lay down scent marks to advertise their sexual receptivity, and scent-marking increases during oestrus. If a female is not fertilized, oestrus will recycle every 20 to 50 days (mean: 45 days). The onset of oestrus is associated with increased head rubbing, rolling and calling. When a female and male that meet during mating are strangers to each other, it may lead to several noisy and aggressive encounters before mating occurs. However, when the pair are familiar with each other, the female will often roll on her back in front of the male or rub with her head against his cheeks before crouching in front of the male who will then mount her.

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Behaviour during oestrus

Once the penis has been inserted, copulation lasts for some three seconds and the female ovulates spontaneously. During copulation, the male commonly bites or grasps the female´s nape to keep her still. Copulation usually ends when the female turns and snarls at the male who will leap away. During the peak of oestrus, copulation occurs frequently and a case is known of one pair that copulated 60 times within a period of nine hours. Mating seldom lasts for more than one to four days. However, most copulations do not lead to fertilization and only 15 per cent of all copulations may be successful.

 

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Litter, loss of cubs

The cubs are born after a gestation period of 90 to 105 days and only the female cares for the cubs. The size of a litter often varies from one to three cubs, but it usually numbers two cubs although litters of up to six cubs are known. The data suggest that the spotted leopards have larger litter sizes (mean: 2.09 cubs) than black leopards (mean: 1.70 cubs). Although leopards seem to breed throughout the year, there is some suggestion that they may breed more often during the dry season when prey are more prone to visit waterholes when water is available. However, in the Kruger National Park most cubs are born when the impalas Aepyceros melampus lamb and provide an abundant food resource. In other regions there is no evidence of seasonality in births. Females with cubs in the southern Kalahari hunt more often and focus on prey that are easier to catch than when those that do not have cubs.

The cubs are born in an abandoned burrow, cave, thicket, hollow tree or pile of rocks with closed eyes which open from four to nine days after birth, and they weigh from 430 to 1000 g. Their fur is short and faintly spotted and their whiskers are black. For a few days after their birth their mother remains near the cubs to nurse them until she has to start hunting to ensure the survival of herself and her cubs. When she is away, the den must be secure to protect the cubs from other predators, mainly lions and spotted hyaenas and even male leopards. Some 50 per cent of the cubs die during their first year of life. When a female with cubs is unsuccessful in hunting, some cubs may die of starvation because they may be left alone for as much as seven days.

When the cubs are confined to a den, their mother usually hunts in the vicinity of the den. She also moves the cubs to a new den every two to five days to protect them. As the cubs become more mobile, she starts to hunt further away from the den, but she returns as often as possible to allow them to suckle. When they start to eat meat she will also return to her cubs after a kill to call them softly and lead them to the kill. The cubs start to follow their mother when they are two to three months old when they weigh 3 to 4 kg and are starting to eat meat, but they will often still be left behind in a secure place after some time while the mother continues to hunt. The cubs suckle until they are four months old when they weigh around 6 kg.

The cubs learn to hunt by pouncing on sticks, each other, their mother and by trying to catch grasshoppers, birds and lizards. They start to kill successfully when they are seven to eight months old. The permanent canine teeth appear first. While young lions and tigers cannot survive alone until they can hunt large prey successfully, young leopards can do so by hunting small prey. A leopard that is 12 to 18 months old is generally independent of its mother, but the time of dispersal varies with the gender of the animal, the availability of food resources and the reproductive status of the mother. However, most of the males disperse when they are 12 months old, while the females seem to keep a closer relationship with their mother until they are two to three years old.

The young males disperse widely but the young females settle close to or even in part of their mother´s range. Males that disperse may settle in part of the range of an adult male for a while before moving again to set up an independent range which can be more than 100 km away. Males of the same litter disperse widely into separate directions. They reach sexual maturity when they are some 30 to 36 month old, and females produce their first litters when they are about 30 to 40 months old.

Depending on whether a litter survives, a female can usually produce a new litter about every two years, but the shortest recorded interval between successive litters is 107 days. In captivity, males are known to breed until they are 21 years old, but the oldest breeding female was 13 years old although another one survived until she was at least 16 years old. However, in the wild it is expected that females will be able to breed to an older age than males because of competition from younger males. The oldest known age of a female in the wild was some 12 years, and one female produced at least 16 cubs during her lifetime. Taking natural mortality in consideration, this is enough to replace a breeding pair in their lifetime.

 

References:

Bothma, J du P & R J Coertze 2004. Motherhood increases hunting success in southern Kalahari leopards. Journal of Mammalogy 85(4): 756 - 760.

Bothma, J du P & M D Bothma 2012. Leopard range size and conservation area size in the southern Kalahari. Koedoe 54(1), Art.#1076, 4 pages.http:dx.doi/org/10.412/koedoe.v54i.1076.

Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J L van Schaik, pages 61 - 91.

Sunquist, M and F Sunquist 2002. Wild cats of the world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pages 330 - 333.

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

article by Prof J du P Bothma

 

 

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