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.
A gorgeous female who is found to the east of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
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:
This female is a success story all in herself, being born as a single cub to the Riverbank 3:3 female in early 2012.
The Nanga female was born to the Nyelethi 4:4 female in 2009 as part of a litter of three.
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.