When I first moved to the bush a leopard was a leopard, and I couldn’t have told them apart even if I had wanted to. Female, male, sub-adult… to me it made no difference; it was a spotted big cat and I was just excited to see one!
Slowly but surely though, as happens to everyone who encounters leopards on at least a less-than-seldom basis, the differences started to become apparent; first between sexes (adult males are significantly bigger than adult females), then ages (younger leopards, apart from the obvious difference in size, generally look more well-kempt. Older individuals become tatty after brawls and rough encounters). Cubs, of course, are a no-brainer.

The final piece of the leopard identification puzzle comes with the telling apart of individuals who may be of similar age and sex. With the healthy population of these big cats that we are fortunate to have inhabiting Londolozi comes the need to differentiate between them, both for record keeping and research purposes. After long enough out here, the acquisition of a thorough knowledge of which leopard lives where and enough encounters with each one, their faces and general features start to pop far more easily, and no reference to any kind of ID-kit is necessary to tell them apart (although we do have these on-site).

Every once in awhile though, we need to look a little more closely at a leopard to be able to identify it. It may be a nighttime encounter in which leopards can all look the same, the animal may be in thick bush with a limited view of it, or it may be another reserve sending us a reference photo asking if we know the individual. Whatever the case, it is to the leopards’ spots that we refer.

Those who have visited our leopard website or seen the reference cards inserted in some of our blogs will probably have noticed a pair of numbers that append each leopard’s name; 4:3, 2:2, 3:3, etc. We often get asked what exactly these numbers mean, and although there is a brief description on the leopard website itself, we thought it prudent to put up a post explaining how they are used, and how they can help identify a leopard from birth to death.

The numbers are basically an ID pattern of spots that are found above the top whisker line and just behind the nose of each leopard. The first number refers to the right cheek (our left) and the second to the leopard’s left cheek (our right).

Have a look at the following photos of the Nkoveni 2:2 female:

The red triangles are essentially the areas in which a leopard’s spot pattern is to be found. Yes there are other things to look for – nose colour, scars, prominent spots elsewhere – but the cheek spot patterns are our immediate go-to ID helpers. From the photos above we can clearly see that the Nkoveni female has a 2:2 spot pattern.

5
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
42 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

It can become confusing when individuals have the same spot numbers, but thankfully the patterns are often different, and even if they do match, we can still look at a combination of sex, size and territory to differentiate between them.

The Nanga and Ndzanzeni female are prime examples of leopards with the same numbers in their spot patterns. Both are 4:3, but the spots are arranged slightly differently:

The Nanga 4:3 female has four spots on HER right and three on her left (the left-right thing can get confusing, but try to think of it like how we would read a book; from left to right). The four spots are in a sort of zigzag pattern, while the three are in a straight line.

The Ndzanzeni female is ALSO a 4:3 female, but the configuration of her four is different; it is a straight line of three, with the fourth spot sitting above.

This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Dudley Riverbank female in early 2012.

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Ndzanzeni 4:3 Female

Lineage
Mother Leopard
Identification
markings
Timeline
15 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
1 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist
8
Nanga 4:3 Female
2009 - present

The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.

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Nanga 4:3 Female

Lineage
Saseka Female
Identification
markings
Timeline
22 stories
Territory
maps
Parents
2 known
Litters
4 known
Offspring
known
Siblings
known
Videos
playlist

Although one might think that it would be easy to get confused between the two females if it were simply a matter of counting their spots, one can see that the patterns themselves are different. The females also have slightly different coat colours (the Nanga female is paler), and thankfully, the two cats are well spatially separated, with their respective territories lying at opposite ends of Londolozi. It would therefore be easy to conclude if we found a 4:3 spot pattern female in the deep south that it would be the Ndzanzeni female, and likewise, the Nanga female in the north.

As to the question of leopards changing their spots, well, thankfully they don’t.
Although they may appear spottier when still young, this is simply because they have the same number of spots, but the spots just appear much more condensed as they haven’t yet stretched out over their growing frames, as they will as they get older.

The photo comparison below is of the Ndzanzeni female again, showing her as an adult and as a cub. If one looks closely, you can see that the spot patterns are exactly the same on her cheeks. Although the spots over her head may appear different, it is simply her growth that has altered their relative positions and density.

The left-right thing is probably the most important part of the spot patterns to remember. The first number refers to the spots on our left, while the second is the spots on our right, if the leopard is looking directly at us.

I hope that clears up a few things with the identification of leopards.

Any questions, please let me know in the comments section below.

 

 

Filed under Leopards Wildlife

Involved Leopards

Nkoveni 2:2 Female

Nkoveni 2:2 Female

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Ndzanzeni 4:3 Female

Ndzanzeni 4:3 Female

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Nanga 4:3 Female

Nanga 4:3 Female

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About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

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20 Comments

on Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

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Marinda Drake

Interesting information James. I always knew about the spot pattern from game drives at Londolozi and the blog, but found it confusing to try and identify it myself. This should be more helpful.

James Tyrrell

Hi Marinda,
Other areas use different techniques for leopard identification, such as the ring of spots around their necks that look almost like collars, but we’ve found this to be the simplest over the years 🙂

Darlene Knott

Terrific explanation, James. Identifying the animals must take quite a bit of practice and sharp eyes. I think I will leave that to the professionals! 😂

Judith Guffey

I agree….leave it to those who see the spots more than once.🌑🐘

Denise Vouri

Thank you for this tutorial on how leopards are identified. I had been a bit confused by the spot markings, but you’ve done a great job clarifying the the patterns and where they’re located. I’m fascinated by these felines and you are fortunate to have so many on the property. Cheers!

James Tyrrell

Hi Denise,
Thanks for the comments.
Fortunately we’re able to see them regularly enough to actually warrant an effective system!
Best regards

Michael & Terri Klauber

Thanks for the leopard lesson James! We always wondered if the markings change from cub to adult!

Mary Beth Wheeler

A good review for me, James – thanks! I’ve wondered if cubs have the same/related spot patterns to their mothers? Nkveni’s 2 cubs seem to have had patterns similar to hers…

Ian Hall

And it is that attention to detail that marks out Londolozi from the rest.

James Tyrrell

HI Ian, thanks for the comments.
Interestingly enough I think it was in the very early days of Londolozi that this system was developed. It must have been in the early 80s, and is recounted in Lex Hes’ book, The Leopards of Londolozi, how they came up with it…
Best regards

Callum Evans

Very interesting post! Was always curious as to why the leopards had that number combo, thanks for clearing that up! Always nice to know how to correctly id leopards

Jeff Rodgers

Great explanation of what those numbers mean . . . even after 7 visits to Londolozi I always wondered about that.

Vittorianna Manzari

Fantastic, amazing information. Thank you. Now I know! Too beautiful
know these things!

A B

Definitely more clearer to me now! Informative post…I’m also curious how do the leopards get their names ?

Linda Polley

Thanks James. I have often thought about how you recognize them, and also would like to know how they get their respective names?

James Tyrrell

Hi AB and Linda,
The leopards are named after some prominent or defining feature in their territories, and only once they become territorial.
For instance, the Nanga female is named after a road that runs through the centre of her territory, while Nkoveni means “in the river”, as this is where she spends a lot her time.
For a more detailed explanation, refer to this blog from a couple of years ago: http://blog.londolozi.com/2013/06/25/re-naming-londolozis-latest/
Best regards,
James

Ian Thomas

Interesting and crystal clear. Well done! Have you ever seen or heard of a 5?

James Tyrrell

Hi Ian,
Thanks for the comments.
Yes, a couple of times.
The Tugwaan male was 5:4, his son the Dudley Riverbank male was 5:5, and the Emsagwen male was even a 6:4.
There is also a female living in the north now called the Ingrid Dam Young female who is a 5:5 as well.
I don’t know if you’ve visited the Leopards of Londolozi website, but if not check out http://leopards.londolozi.com/leopards/ for all the individuals and their respective spot patterns.

Best regards

James

Ian Thomas

Hi James, Thank you, I find this very interesting. I am also a bit confused, the page that I reach from your article is slightly different to the one that I reach from the link in your reply. One has more information than the other. I am sure that I am doing something incorrectly or are there two pages.
Another question; do you have any information on a leopard called Tyson?
Warm regards

Ian

James Tyrrell

Hi Ian,

If the link I sent doesn’t work, try visiting leopards.londolozi.com, then in the top right click on the three little stripes, which is a drop down menu that will take you to the “Meet the Leopards” section, which is where you’ll find all the individuals.

Tyson was a male who we called the Marthly 3:2 male, who came in from the north, dominated the Sand River for a couple of years from around 2011, then disappeared in 2015 after he had been ousted from his territory. His profile is on the website above. There have been lots of posts about him on the blog; if you use the Search feature it should bring up a number of them.

Best regards

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