Various animal species from leopards, lions and zebras to penguins, manta rays and whale sharks, have individually unique spot patterns or natural markings which are useful in identifying individuals within that species. Most often these spot patterns will remain the same over time, as the animal grows and develops, which allows individuals to be distinguished from others throughout its life.
Understanding this and knowing where to look and how to identify an animal is very helpful in that it allows us to monitor the movements of individuals within a population and better understand the behaviour of that animal. It helps us understand the life-histories of animals and determine other ecological data such as abundance, range or territory and the structure of populations; elements that are essential for the study, conservation and protection of a species.

This is a page from the Londolozi leopard identification kit. It shows one of the female leopards who we view on Londolozi, her territory, mother, presumed father, history, litters and spot pattern. It is a very useful identification kit and the information in it has been acquired over many years.

The Tamboti femal leopard’s spot pattern is four on the right side and three on the left. Look directly above the top whisker line to find the four spots!

This front-on perspective allows one to see both sides of the Tamboti female’s spot pattern. We also use other ways to identify leopards including area found and territory, size and shape, distinctive features such as scars, coat shades (golden or a darker colouration for example), and eyes colour.

The left side of the Tamboti female shows three distinctive spot above the top whisker line. These are easier to make out than the right side!

About two weeks ago I made a trip to Tofo, Mozambique, and met a number of marine researchers at a scuba diving centre there. They were working with the Marine Megafauna Foundation and were researching all large aquatic animals from groupers and trevally (species of fish) to manta rays and whale sharks. Before each dive they would give us a brief on how to help them acquire photographic data. Manta rays have unique spot patterns on their ventral surface which vary greatly in size, shape, contrast and spatial distribution. These were the patterns we were asked to take photographs of… how I was going to get under a manta ray’s belly I did not know! Having photographs of these patterns allows researchers to manage and track sightings of the mantas to establish the life-histories of these aquatic giants, as well as determine other ecological data such as abundance, range, movement patterns and structure of manta populations across the world. Throughout those interesting conversations I couldn’t help but draw on the similarities with the Londolozi leopard research and observation – they were equally excited about it!

The manta ray has a distinctive spot pattern much like the leopard! These spots are found on their ventral surface (under the belly of the giant)…

Manta rays can reach up to 7m in length, weigh up to 3000pounds and travel up to 70km a day!

Having conversations with those passionate marine biologists and volunteers I met in Mozambique made me think of the leopard research here at Londolozi. At Londolozi we have documented the behaviour of a large number of leopards over many generations either through photography and videography or through hours spent in the field observing. We have a large database showing territorial, mating and feeding behaviour as well as the lineages over the last four decades. This knowledge of leopard behaviour is passed on to each guide who arrives at Londolozi. All our data is uploaded to the central database of Panthera, the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats. By now they have data on over 1800 different leopards that at one time or another have called the Sabi Sands Game Reserve home. This unique and extensive dataset is revealing sides to Leopard behaviour that we previously knew nothing about…

Who knows, maybe one day something similar will be available for Manta rays?

The leopard identification kit will have to be updated annually because territories are always changing, leopards lose litters and individuals come and go…

Filed under Leopards Wildlife

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Tamboti 4:3 Female

Tamboti 4:3 Female

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About the Author

Bruce Arnott

Field Guide

Bruce grew up on a plot of farmland in the midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. He always had a passion for the bush and the outdoors, having been camping and fishing since he was a young boy. He attended school in the Natal midlands after ...

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on How are Leopards and Manta Rays Similar?

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Marinda Drake

Interesting to know that Mantra rays can be identified with spot patterns like leopards. I know Zebra stripe patterns are unique to each individual as well as the pattern of wild dogs. Are there any other animals that can be identified in this way? What about lions? How do they get identified?

Joanne Wadsworth

So many are unaware of the scientific side of tracking and how it’s done. Photographing the Manta Rays must have been very exciting and an interesting life experience!

Iris Lane

What great photos, which are so clear. The spots are interesting too. As I am married to diver who take photos of marine life, he will be fascinated too!

Denise Vouri

Kudos to all the team at Londolozi for your contributions to leopard information and education. It’s been through your blogs that I learned how leopards are identified.

Thank you!!

Dawn Mann

Very pleased to see the mention of Panthera–truly an outstanding organization.

James Tyrrell

Hi Dawn,
Yes they are! We submit all our data to them and they are producing some amazing research!

Lachlan Fetterplace

Nice write up Bruce. There are quite a lot of marine species where differences patterns can be used to ID individuals too, I have a friend doing that with smooth rays for example.

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