BRIDGEPORT, Conn. –— March 7, 2019 – One of the two Amur leopard cubs (Panthera pardus orientalis) at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo has a condition known as melanism. The male cub has the usual spotted coat, while the female cub is melanistic, a condition where the body produces an excess of black pigment, the opposite of albinism.
At first, a melanistic cat might look solid black, but even melanistic leopards are spotted. If you get a close look, you may be able to discern a pattern of black rosettes on a black background. Researchers have found that frequencies of melanism in leopards vary significantly across habitat types—highest in tropical moist forests and near zero in open habitats. A melanistic cat living in deep jungle amid thick vegetation—where there are significant areas of dark shade—can blend into the background. But in the Amur leopard’s open-forest habitat, areas of dark shade are harder to come by, making a melanistic leopard much easier to spot.
For a leopard, survival depends on spotting prey before being spotted, so blending into the background is important. For that reason, while the Zoo’s female cub may one day be recommended for breeding, any of her descendants would not be included in reintroduction plans. For reintroduction, the intent is to produce genetic lines that will maximize survival in the wild. A melanistic cat, while normal in all other aspects, is at a disadvantage in the wild, because they would be more noticeable than typical spotted leopards.
While 11 percent of leopards alive today are thought to be melanistic, most are found in Southeast Asia, where tropical forests offer an abundance of shade. Melanism provides additional camouflage in those habitats, giving the predators an advantage when hunting. An extremely rare melanistic leopard was recently sighted in Africa for the first time in a century. There is currently one other melanistic Amur leopard in this country at the San Diego Zoo.