A short while ago we came across the Nkoveni Female by chance on our way back to camp in the early evening. We had just turned a corner, and there she was, crossing the road ahead of us. We were eager to follow her for a short while and see what she would get up to. It’s always fascinating to see how fluid and stealthy leopards are when they navigate through dense vegetation or tall grass. Especially so in the stillness of the twilight hours.
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.
Suddenly she noticed something in the distance, and her body dropped low to the ground. She advanced slowly, with deadly precision in the placement of each paw. The level of focus in her eyes made me think of how one uses a magnifying glass to start a fire. Channelling all of her energy and sensory ability onto one single point. At this stage, we were viewing in anticipation from a distance so that we wouldn’t interfere. When looking through binoculars I couldn’t help but notice how proud and flared her whiskers were.
A single cub of the Ximungwe Female's second litter. Initially rather skittish but is very relaxed now. Birth mark in his left eye.
It’s easy for us as humans to focus on the physical senses that might be more relevant to us when observing animals. This sighting reminded me of just how important the sensory ability of whiskers are. As well as simply completing the look of any cat, whiskers serve many essential functions:
Whiskers play a crucial role in determining the body’s position. Cats have special sensory receptor cells at the base of their whiskers. These relay messages about their surroundings to the brain, which is the main reason why cats can almost always land on their feet. And in the case of leopards, also why they are equally as agile as monkeys and baboons in the treetops.
Having been viewed by vehicles from an early age, this leopard is supremely relaxed around Land Rovers.
While hunting, whiskers are feeding constant information about what it is the cat is stalking through. Whether the gap between two branches is big enough to squeeze through without making a noise, or whether the type of grass will rustle and blow their cover.
The whiskers are so sensitive that they can detect inaudible vibrations in the air surrounding them, almost serving as a radar system. Think of the pounding heartbeat of a terrified scrub-hare hiding from a leopard in a clump of grass during the dead stillness of a dark night. This proves to be extremely helpful when needing to detect not only prey but imminent dangers too.
Navigating the Night
Although visibility at night is only slightly reduced for cats than during the day; the whiskers come into their own during the dead of the night. Serving as a continuous feedback loop that keeps the cat completely in tune with what it is moving through. When we see cats pause for a brief moment whilst on the move during a still night, they are using their hearing and whiskers to paint an incredibly highly detailed picture of what’s ahead of them. Although they are ‘looking’, it is not primarily with their eyes.
Whiskers are highly sensitive to even the lightest touch with the finest piece of debris. Cats have lightning-fast reflexes which are paired with an unrivalled reaction time. They can quickly detect anything hazardous around their face and eyes. This is helpful whilst grappling large prey on the ground, but even more so during fights with each other, where lethal claws and teeth will mostly be targeting sensitive areas across their head.
Began as a fairly unrelaxed leopard in the southwestern parts of the reserve. Now providing great viewing in the open grasslands
We continued to watch the Nkoveni Female for a few more minutes. Then, in an incredibly fast and calculated leap, followed by an explosive 90° manoeuvre upon contact with the ground. She emerged from a small cloud of dust. It was needless to say, dangling from her jaws was the unlucky victim, a scrub-hare.
We are incredibly fortunate to be able to witness such amazing feats of the natural world play out right in front of our eyes. However, it is only by acquiring an understanding of the smaller details of the magical world of animal anatomy that we can fully appreciate it.
Filed under General Nature Leopards Photography Ranger Wildlife
PS. Thank you for all the information you gathered on the functions that whiskers provide. I learned a few new reasons why whiskers are important to the daily lives of leopards.