No we’re not having a competition to see who can come up with the most obscure title for a post.

I was having coffee with a friend recently and were discussing the various intelligence levels – or at least supposed intelligence levels – of animals, dogs being the main subject of our talk. Apparently a retired psychologist trained his dog to differentiate between over 1000 different words, so that even a stranger could enter the house and instruct the dog to “Fetch Batman!”, and the hound would go and fetch the dark night out of a whole host of other figurines. Every time.

Obviously the talk drifted into the wildlife sphere, and whether or not some of the big cats would have a similar capacity for learning. Some people think lions and leopards are incredibly intelligent, others think they operate far more on instinct, and it is just their senses that are far superior to ours, allowing them to detect and therefore respond to stimuli that are undetectable to humans. We won’t go into that here, so let’s just focus on the question at hand; would a leopard be able to perform the same prodigious feats of learning as the dog described above?

Many of the things the Ndzanzeni young male will learn over the next year or so will be learnt the hard way.

A wonderful book called Elephantoms by Lyall Watson tells how one of the measures of the capacity for learning is percentage growth in brain size from birth to adulthood: the more your brain grows, the more you can learn. Obviously having a big brain to grow from would help.

The book was about elephants, and to my recollection leopards weren’t, sadly, mentioned, so this doesn’t really help us here, as I don’t actually know what the percentage growth in a leopard’s brain is over the course of its lifetime. Given that leopards do need to learn, I imagine their increase in brain size over a lifetime is fairly significant. Note, it’s growth that’s important, not actual brain size. A cow’s brain is larger than a chimpanzees for example, but you don’t often hear of cows being lauded for their remarkable problem solving ability.

What we can look at is just how much learning is required by a leopard in order to survive in the wild.
Something like an impala has to learn to eat this grass, run away when that thing with spots chases you, don’t wander into the thickets at night, and that’s about it. Their need for knowledge is minimal. A predator like a leopard however, particularly since it is a predominantly solitary creature, will need a far deeper bag of tricks to make it through life; knowing what animals are good to hunt and how to hunt them, how to hoist a kill, which trees are best to escape lions into (a lesson the Piva male may have missed)… A lot of these things are learnt through trail and error while some are learnt from watching their mother. Many are simply instinctive behavioural traits that are honed over the course of a lifetime.

Take a look at this video of a leopard and her cub in a forest in Gabon.

The mirror and accompanying camera were set up as part of an animal behaviour experiment, and captured the leopards reacting to the mirror in an incredible way; it suggests that they are self-aware. This is a trait which only the most intelligent creatures are meant to possess, like the great apes, monkeys and elephants.

The same mother (this time with a new cub) was captured on camera again more than two years later:

The cub is the far more curious of the pair, which one would predict, seeing as how it is still in a learning phase of its life. Its reactions to seeing itself in the mirror are incredible to view. Just how much is self-awareness and how much is simple curiosity is hard to say. Any thoughts?

Is the Mashaba young female self-aware? Her capacity for learning certainly needs to be high in the formative years of her life.

Given that leopards aren’t social or domesticated creatures, I don’t imagine you would ever have a scenario in which a retired psychologist taught his pet leopard 1000 new words. The likelihood is he would teach the leopard “dinner”, only to become dinner himself.

Having observed leopards in the wild though, and knowing how so much of their behaviour is a response to things that they could only have learnt, I’m sure their capacity for learning is high, and there are certainly some parallels between the dog experiment and a leopard’s existence. For the big cat, recognizing the distress call of a duiker and knowing what it means are the same fundamentals of the dog-psychology experiment, i.e. associating a specific sound with the reaction it should elicit.

Since leopards do this already, I’m pretty sure a simple superhero recognition after an audible cue is well within their capabilities. I just wonder how Batman would taste…

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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9 Comments

on Could a Leopard Recognize Batman?

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Marinda Drake

Great blog James. I have read Elephantoms last year. A fantastic book. Cats are very intelligent. I have not got a leopard in my house but observed my domestic cats for many years. They can see themselves in the mirror and sometimes look for that other cat. They’ve learned to watch the television reflected in the mirror. They can see the birds outside in the mirror. The first time we watched Dereck and Beverly Joubert’s documentary Soul of the Cat comparing big cats to domestic cats our cat sat upright and started watching it. He stand up against the telivision and tap the big cats. He even go behind the television to try and find the other cats. We recorded the documentary and turn it on for him to watch. He knows it is his program that is on. They do learn certain behaviour.

James Tyrrell

Hi Marida,
I’m sure their learning abilities are high. Just because what they’ve learnt won’t necessarily manifest itself in similar behaviour to us doesn’t mean they aren’t observing, remembering and learning all the time.

Dave Mills

James, you’re the best: always interesting, always creative, always delightful to read.

James Tyrrell

Thanks very much for the kind words David!

Joanne Wadsworth

Watching, I found myself as fascinated as the leopards! Loved watching a “first” in wildlife and that the mother, two years later, easily remembered the mirror and didn’t react at all. Oh, it’s just “that thing again.” The cub was undaunted however, even though Mother wanted to persistently groom. Wonderful to watch and I thank you James for the peek into an bush experiment. Well done!

James Tyrrell

Hi Joanne,
Thanks for the comments. I was also thrilled to come across that video. Now I want to know what other creatures saw the mirror. Gabon is home to the Lowland Gorilla, which would have been fascinating creatures to observe viewing their own reflections…

Ted Swindon

HI JAMES,
I TRUST THIS EMAIL FINDS YOU WELL.
I READ YOUR VERY INTERESTING POST,”COULD A LEOPARD RECOGNIZE BATMAN”?,
WITH ABSOLUTE INTRIGUE AND FASCINATION!
I HAVE FOR A LONG TIME BELIEVED THAT LEOPARDS HAVE THE CAPABILITY OF FACIAL RECOGNITION.
“YEAH TED TELL US ANOTHER ONE”!
I HAVE PROVEN IT AND HAVE SHARED THIS WITH SEAN D’ARAUJO AND BEJAY.

NOW, BEFORE YOU THINK THAT I AM COMPLETELY “COOKED” IN THE HEAD, I WOULD LIKE TO TELL YOU OF A RECENT EXPERIENCE I HAD.
THOSE OF YOU WHO KNOW ME, KNOW MY PASSION FOR LONDOLOZI AS WELL AS LEOPARDS!
I VISITED KIRKMANS CAMP IN NOVEMBER AND WE CROSSED OVER ONTO MALAMALA AND WE SAW A VERY NERVOUS FEMALE LEOPARD.
I IMMEDIATELY SAID TO THE RANGER THAT I NEW THIS FEMALE. AFTER FOLLOWING HER SHE NERVOUSLY STOPPED AND LOOKED UP AT THE VEHICLE, AND I BELIEVE SHE SAW ME SAW ME.
SHE IMMEDIATELY RELAXED AND LAY DOWN NEXT TO THE VEHICLE.
WE HEARD THAT THE SABI SABI RANGERS HAD SEEN HER EARLIER THE SAME DAY.
IT TURNED OUT THAT IT WAS THE NZANDZENI FEMALE WHO WAS IN A FOREIGN TERRITORY, HENCE HER NERVOUSNESS.
IT IS MY BELIEF THAT SHE WAS LOOKING FOR A NEW TERRITORY AS SHE WANTS TO MAKE WAY FOR HER CUB.
THE POINT OF TELLING YOU THIS STORY IS, TO CONCUR WITH YOUR BLOG, THAT IF A LEOPARD WAS TO SEE BATMAN AS MANY TIMES AS NZANDZENI HAS SEEN ME, THEN I BELIEVE SHE WOULD RECOGNISE HIM, AND I DO NOT HAVE A FANCY SUIT!
I KNOW THAT PEOPLE MAY THINK THAT I AM CRAZY, BUT I BELIEVE THIS THEORY VERY FIRMLY AS SEAN WILL CONCUR THAT IT HAS BEEN UNCANNY WITH MANY OF OUR SIGHTINGS IN THE PAST HOW OFTEN WE HAVE SEEN LEOPARDS DUE TO THIS THEORY OF MINE!
ANYWAY, IT IS AN ENTIRELY A PERSONAL BELIEF/THEORY OF MINE.
WHETHER THERE IS ANY TRUTH IN IT OR NOT, DOES NOT MATTER.
LET US HOWEVER RECOGNIZE AND GIVE CREDIT TO THESE MAGNIFICENT ANIMALS WHO LIVE IN A VERY HOSTILE WORLD THAT THEY HAVE A VERY HIGH LEVEL OF INTELLIGENCE.

THANK YOU FOR ALLOWING THIS “CRAZY” LEOPARD LOVING OLD MAN TO SHARE HIS PERSONAL EXPERIENCES!
TAKE CARE, AND I LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING ALL OF YOU WONDERFUL PEOPLE AGAIN SOON.
KIND REGARDS,
TED.

James Tyrrell

Hi Ted,
Good to hear from you.
This is something I’ve often wondered about. Some of the rangers here would have seen the Mashaba female well over a hundred times, and she them, so there surely would be some reciprocal recognition on the part of the leopard. Whether or not that recognition elicits any reaction or not from the cat is another debate entirely, but it’s certainly a fascinating topic!
Glad you saw the Ndzanzeni female next door!

Judith Guffey

Wonderful stealth cam videos. Wonder who set up this experiment.

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