Just the other day I watched the Tamboti female leopard curl her tail up as she slipped past our vehicle. This could mean any number of things but in that moment I knew that she was doing it to guide her cub with the prominent white tip on her tail’s underside. Leopards, and big cats alike, make use of their tails for a variety of different functions including, expressing mood, state of mind, as a form of communication, a way of strengthening social bonds, displaying irritation or frustration, in mating rituals and for enhanced movement. In this post, I want to help you to interpret and analyse such tail movements and body posture so that when you next see a leopard you’ll be able to tell exactly why it’s doing what it’s doing.

Tamboti tail B&W flick CA

The Tamboti female curls up her tail whilst she walks past our vehicle. Their bodies are incredibly well camouflaged and the prominent white tip of her tail stands out amongst the long grass making it easier for her cubs to follow. This same following mechanism can be found in different forms on many other species such as waterbuck, kudu and warthog.

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Tamboti 4:3 Female
2007 - present

The Tamboti female inhabits the south-eastern sections of Londolozi, having a large part of her territory along the Maxabene Riverbed.

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Tamboti 4:3 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
29 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
1 known
Litters
3 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist
Xidulu-plus-2-Mxabene CA

The late Xidulu female and her two cubs walk in perfect unison through a dry river bed. With tails slightly elevated off the ground, one can see that all three animals were walking at a similar pace, displaying similar body language.

The daughter of Sunsetbend female, is named Xidulu which means termite mound in Shangaan.

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Xidulu 2:3 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
16 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
1 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Social bonding in leopards:

The best examples I have seen of this recently is with the Nkoveni female and her cub. As the cub moved around its mother, it wrapped its tail around her face before moving off.

This interaction between mother and cub increases the social bond between them and is similar to lions who rub their faces together. It reassures the other of their inherently close relationship and forms a crucial component in the upbringing of these young cubs. It is a way that the cubs, in particular, are able to communicate through the slightest touch of their tail or a flicking action when passing by their mother, expressing affection and strengthening kinship bonds.

Nkoveni plus 1 tail CA

A photograph from a separate sighting, the Nkoveni female’s youngster walks past her mother and flicks her tail around her neck and face thus expressing affection and strengthening social bonds.

Nkoveni plus 1 tail flick CA

The Nkoveni female stares into the camera as her young cub acknowledges her mother’s presence through the placement of her tail even though she is looking towards her sadly now-deceased sister.

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Nkoveni 2:2 Female
2012 - present

A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.

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Nkoveni 2:2 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
38 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Assessment of cognitive state or mood:

Just the other day, my guests and I were following the Tamboti female on a hunt. She was spotted by a tree squirrel, who subsequently began alarm calling, giving her position away to any potential prey. Immediately the Tamboti female gave up the hunt and expressed her irritation through some subsequent tail flicks. She then raised her tail high into the air, as if to raise a white flag and let out her rasping call, letting the squirrel know that it could stop alarming as she was no longer trying to hunt.

Through the swift flicking of a tail, a leopard showcases its mood. Another example of this is when a mother irritatedly whips her tail away from a cub as it tries to bite her. Leopards will often flick their tails high into the air creating a circular motion when such instances occur.

Mashaba tail irritation CA

The Tamboti female expresses her irritation at an alarming tree squirrel through the outward flicking motion of her tail.

Nkoveni tail termite CA

After a morning of persistent playing and biting of her tail, the Nkoveni female succumbs to the irritation of an over-zealous cub by flicking her tail away from it.

Mashaba YF tail flies CA

The Mashaba young female expresses her annoyance at hundreds of flies that have descended on an impala she was feeding on. This tail movement represents her frustration towards the flies but also acts as a fly swatter.

Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.

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Mashaba 5:3 Young Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
21 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
1 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Sexual behaviour and courtship:

The leopards pictured below are the Tamboti female and Piva male who I saw mating a while back. Mating leopards exhibit a variety of tail movements in order to attract or entice their potential partner to mate. During a mating ritual, a female leopard will circle around her male counterpart, flicking her tail in his face and along the length of his body. Coupled with a growling sound, the female leopard will eventually position herself in front on the male where copulation takes place. Occurring multiple times a day and for a few consecutive days, a female will use her tail as a means of flirting, expressing to the male that she is ready to mate and thereby enticing him from his resting spot.

Mashaba-and-FRM-mate-CA

An action shot of the Tamboti female and the late Piva male post-mating. As he jumps off and away from her, his tail can be seen almost straightened as he indicates his displeasure with the female.

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Piva 3:2 Male
2010 - 2017

Directly descended from the original mother leopard and therefore part of the royal lineage of Londolozi.

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Piva 3:2 Male

Lineage
Mother Leopard
Identification
markings
Timeline
27 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Balance:

Leopards have very long, tubular-shaped tails, which are not only important for communication but crucial for their survival too. A few months ago I saw the perfect example of how important a leopard’s tail is for balance when I watched the late Xidulu female leopard and her cubs scale a tree in order to escape some hyenas. Each of their tails shot out at different angles as they compensated for the angle of the tree, their varying weights, the pace that they were moving at and the direction of their movement. Leopards are well known for their ability to pull very heavy carcasses up trees and while their jaws and claws are preoccupied with carrying and climbing, their tails help to steer movement and maintain balance. Their tails also prove useful as a rudder when hunting. This prehensile like tail acts somewhat as an additional limb and allows leopards to increase balance and their ability to turn sharply when chasing prey or playing with one another.

4:4 male tree CA

The late Robson’s 4:4 male descends from a Leadwood tree whilst grasping a bushbuck. One can see the tail held stiffly out to the side maintains and assists with balance.

This rangy male was an enigma, arriving on Londolozi in the mid to latter parts of 2014 and staying mainly in the western areas.

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Robson's 4:4 Male

Lineage
Unknown
Identification
markings
Timeline
8 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
0 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist
Hlanguleni tree tail CA

The out-stretched tail position of the Nhlanguleni female helps her maintain her balance whilst scent marking and moving through this Marula tree.

Born to the Tutlwa female in early-mid 2011, the Nhlanguleni female spent her formative months (and years) in and around the Sand River.

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Nhlanguleni 3:2 Female

Lineage
Sunsetbend
Identification
markings
Timeline
18 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist
Xidulu-plus-YF-climb-tree CA

The late Xidulu female and her female cub scurry up a Marula tree to evade a pursuing hyena. Their varying tail positions are due to their different climbing angles but both assist with balance.

Nkoveni cubs play mid air CA

Tail movements with cubs is often fascinating to watch due to the playful nature. Here the Nkoveni female’s young cubs stalk and jump on one another but both tail positions assist with balance.

When you start to really get to know these animals, you realise that there are so many fascinating intricacies to learn about their body language and behaviour. Even just the flick of a tail can allow you deeper into the secretive life of a leopard.

Filed under Leopards Wildlife

Involved Leopards

Tamboti 4:3 Female

Tamboti 4:3 Female

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Nkoveni 2:2 Female

Nkoveni 2:2 Female

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Robson's 4:4 Male

Robson's 4:4 Male

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Xidulu 2:3 Female

Xidulu 2:3 Female

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Mashaba 3:3 Female

Mashaba 3:3 Female

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Mashaba 5:3 Young Female

Mashaba 5:3 Young Female

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Piva 3:2 Male

Piva 3:2 Male

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Flat Rock 3:2 Male

Flat Rock 3:2 Male

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Nhlanguleni 3:2 Female

Nhlanguleni 3:2 Female

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About the Author

Callum Gowar

Field Guide

Growing up in Cape Town, the opposite end of South Africa from its main wildlife areas, didn't slow Callum down when embarking on his ranger training at Londolozi at the start of 2015. He had slowly begun moving north-east through the country anyway, ...

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8 Comments

on Why is a Leopard’s Tail Important?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake

Love these informative blogs where we can learn something. Interesting that leopards use the tail as an additional limb.

Ian Hall

Super photos, the opening shot really highlights the effectiveness of heavy cropping.

Denise Vouri

Fascinating Callum. I had always heard that the white fur underneath a leopard’s tail enabled the youngsters to follow mom. Additionally, it is also used for balance, so my previous lessons are validated by your blog. Wonderful photos accompany your blog.

Tim Barton

Thanks for this post Callum. I got several very nice shots last month of the Nkoveni female and her cubs and now the tails I captured make a lot more sense and are even more satisfying to me. Thanks so much!

Sylvain Villeroy De Galhau

Thanks Callum for this very interesting blog entry. I noticed that the “bio” of the Xidulu female hasn’t been updated since her passing away.

James Tyrrell

Hi Sylvain,

Thanks for the head’s up. We’ll update it immediately!
Best regards

Callum Evans

Animals have far more complex ways of communicating than most people know. I defintely didn’t know about some of the communicative functions, thanks for the clarity!

Darlene Knott

Wonderful information, Callum. The photos are beautiful. Love this blog!

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