“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak great language” – Martin Buber
The Torchwood male holds territory falling mostly to the west of Londolozi and is infrequently seen.
We’ve been so fortunate recently to have spent a good amount of time up close-up and personal with several leopards on Londolozi – and there’s no way to describe how seemingly they stare straight through your soul when gazing up at you. We observe this creature in awe, picking out every detail in its golden coat marked with dark rosettes and piercing amber eyes, glowing with a fierce and intelligent light. This got me thinking, though: how do leopards see us? This spiralled into the question of how they see the world in general.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
This female is most often encountered near the Sand River to the east of the Londolozi camps.
Initially seen as a young male in 2016, this leopard only properly established territory on Londolozi in mid-2019
Leopards are known for their keen eyesight, which allows them to spot prey from a distance and hunt effectively. This is due in part to several adaptations that have evolved to help them see well in a variety of conditions.
1. Wide field of view: leopard’s round eyes
In terms of acuity, or the ability to see fine details, leopards have slightly worse eyesight than humans. They can see objects that are about 6-8 metres (20-25 feet) away as clearly as a human can see objects that are about 3 metres (10 feet) away. However, leopards have a wider field of view than humans, which allows them to see more of their surroundings at once. This is useful for detecting movement and spotting potential prey.
Leopards have a wide field of view because of the shape and placement of their eyes on their head. Their eyes are positioned towards the front of the head, giving them binocular vision (overlapping fields of view, allowing good perception of depth). The shape of the leopard’s eyes also contributes to their wide field of view. Leopards have round eyes, while humans have more oval-shaped eyes.
A study on 214 species of land animals indicated that a creature’s ecological niche is a strong predictor of the shape of its pupil. Species with pupils that are vertical slits are more likely to be ambush predators that are active both day and night, think of crocodiles. In contrast, those with horizontally elongated pupils are more likely to be plant-eating prey species, like wildebeest and buffalo, with eyes on the sides of their heads. Circular pupils were linked to “active foragers,” or animals that chase down their prey, much like leopards.
2. Next-level night vision: the tapetum lucidum
Leopards have eyes adapted for low light conditions and can see well in the dark. One of their key adaptations is a structure in the back of their eyes called the tapetum lucidum. This reflects light back through the retina and increases the amount of light that is detected by the eye, giving them good night vision and allowing them to hunt successfully in the dim light of dawn and dusk. The tapetum lucidum is responsible for the glowing eyes often seen in nocturnal animals when caught in a beam of light.
3. Light sensitivity: relying on rod cells
Leopards have a high density of rods in their retinas, which are specialized cells that are sensitive to light and dark. This gives them good sensitivity to low light levels and helps them to see well in dim conditions.
The retina contains two types of photoreceptors: rods and cones.
Rods are responsible for detecting light and dark and are more sensitive to low light levels. They are found throughout the retina but are especially concentrated in an area called the peripheral retina, which is responsible for detecting movement. Rods are not sensitive to colour, so they do not contribute to colour vision.
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.
Conversely, cones are responsible for colour vision and are more sensitive to bright light. They are found in a small area called the fovea, which is responsible for high-acuity vision (the ability to see fine details). There are three types of cones, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light (red, green, and blue), and the combination of these three types of cones allows us as humans to see a full range of colours.
Nocturnal animals, such as leopards, have a higher density of rods in their retina, which allows them to see well in low-light conditions. Other animals, such as humans and other diurnal animals, have a higher density of cones in the fovea, which allows them to see fine details and a full range of colours.
A pretty young playful female found along the river to the east of camp
One day I would love if we would actually be able to see how exactly how leopards view the world. It’s hard for us to imagine something that we cannot see or fully understand. However, until then, it’s exciting to understand how the combination of their circular eyes, tapetum lucidum, and a high density of rods allows leopards to see well in a variety of conditions, including low light levels and dim light. These adaptations are crucial for their success as predators.