The Clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is a tree climbing felid, whose local common Malaysian name means branch-of-a-tree tiger. It is a member of the Felidae family along with mammals such as the big cats (e.g. lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars) and domestic cats; in fact, the Clouded Leopard shares a common ancestry, dating to the era ten to six million years before present, with the Tiger (Panthera tigris), Lion (P. leo), Leopard (P. pardus) and Snow Leopard (P. uncia). Currently, two subspecies of the clouded leopard are known to exist: N. n. nebulosa and N. n. macrosceloides. A third subspecies, N. n. brachyuran is believed to be extinct.
This species derives its name from the distinctive cloud pattern of adorning its coat, nebulosus being the Latin word for cloudy. These elliptical-shaped blotches are edged in black, while the inner portions are darker than the background color of the animal’s pelt. The fur, itself, is pale yellow to rich brown, making the cloud-like spots appear even more distinctive. The limbs and underbelly also display large black ovals while two solid black bars run from behind the ears along the back of the neck down to the shoulder blades. Prominent facial features include a white muzzle, pink nose pad, and stiff whiskers surrounded by a field of solid black spots marking the forehead and cheeks. Additionally, the iris of the eye is brownish-yellow or grayish-green, and the pupils can contract into vertical slits. Finally, the ears are short and round.
A medium-sized cat, the clouded leopard is about the size of a small Labrador retriever, exhibiting an average body length of about 90 cm (35.4 in), a shoulder height nearing 50 to 60 cm (19.7 to 23.6 in), and a weight approximating 18 to 22 kg (39.6 and 48.4 lbs). Moreover, it possesses an exceptionally long, thick, and black-ringed tail, measuring 75 to 105 cm (29.5 and 41.3 in), that affords great balance for this chiefly arboreal species.
In proportion to its body size the clouded leopard also has the largest canines of all the cats, a feature that has earned this species the reputation of being the “modern day saber-tooth.” In effect, the canine teeth can reach 4 cm (1.6 in) or more in length while a wide gap exists between the premolars and canines due to the frequent absence of the first premolar. Additionally, the skull is distinctively long and narrow and has well-developed crests to support the strong jaw muscles.
Compared to other members of the Felidae family, the clouded leopard’s legs are considered relatively short, with the hind limbs being longer than the fore limbs. Yet, like other types of felines, its extremities demonstrate considerable range of motion, particularly since the ulna and radius bones are not fused. Moreover, broad padded feet with retractile claws make this animal quite adept at climbing trees and creeping through thick forest terrains.
There seems to be no sexual dimorphism in clouded leopards, although females appear slightly smaller. Also, in juveniles, the spotted fur does not acquire its characteristic clouded appearance until the animal is approximately six months old.
Behavior and reproduction
The clouded leopard demonstrates incredible tree climbing abilities, having been observed running head-first down tree trunks, climbing about on the underside of branches, and hanging upside down by its hind feet with the tail affording effective balance. This species also swims well, enabling individuals to establish home ranges on small islands located off the mainland.
However, much that is known about clouded leopard behavior, particularly reproductive activities, originates from studies of captive individuals, although such investigations have achieved only limited success. For example, arranged mating encounters at zoos have often precipitated aggressive displays between the two individuals, with the male subsequently killing the female using a bite to the back of the neck. For this reason, many biologists believe that male-female compatibility is a crucial element for reproductive success. In effect, the most successful mating events have occurred between a male and female that were raised together from only a few weeks of age, although researchers do not consider clouded leopards to be strictly monogamous in the wild. Also, in zoos, mating typically occurs between December and March, yet it is thought to happen at any time throughout the year in the species natural habitats.
In general, clouded leopards are believed to be solitary animals except during the breeding season when males actively seek out females. At such times the mating pair likely copulates many times over the course of several days. Just prior to each intromission the male grasps his partner by biting the back of her neck, and the female responds with a vocalization. Once mating activities cease, the partners separate, and the male has no involvement in the rearing of offspring. Also, it is believed that male clouded leopards are not monogamous in the wild.
In captivity, the gestation period normally lasts between 88 and 95 days, yet the female does not appear pregnant until the third trimester, at which time her abdomen and nipples become larger. A mother usually gives birth to two kittens per pregnancy, but litters of one to five offspring have also been documented. Kittens are born with the large spots that are characteristic of their parents, but these markings appear as solid black ovals until approximately 6 months of age when they acquire a distinctive clouded appearance. Depending on the size of the litter, a newborn weighs between 140 and 280 g (4.9 to 9.9 oz). An infant first opens its eyes between two and eleven days of age, begins walking at about 20 days of age, and commences tree climbing when about six weeks old. Also, a kitten begins consuming flesh when seven to ten weeks old but relies on its mother’s milk as a primary source of nutrition until it becomes completely weaned at 10 to 14 weeks.
At zoos, clouded leopard kittens are typically taken away from their mothers to be hand-reared but, in the wild, offspring normally remain with their mothers for nearly 10 months. Once kittens are born, the mother licks them to keep them clean and warm, and she continues to perform this activity until youngsters learn to self-groom. While it is unknown where a female keeps her young while hunting, she probably hides them in dense vegetation. At about ten months of age, a youngster departs from its mother in order to establish its own territory.
Average life expectancy of wild clouded leopards is estimated to be 11 years, but captive individuals have been known to survive up to 17 years, although averages between 13 and 15 years are most common. Moreover, little is known about the inter-birth interval of wild clouded leopards, but females in captivity have demonstrated a between-birth timeframe of 10 to 16 months. Also, clouded leopards in zoos arrive at sexual maturity between 20 and 30 months of age, with the average being 23 to 24 months.
Like other Felidae members, clouded leopards possess keen vision as well as acute senses of smell and hearing. To convey information about territorial boundaries these animals engage in tree clawing, urine spraying, scraping, and head rubbing, all of which are typical scent-marking behavior. Vocalizations such as growling, mewing, hissing, and spitting are also employed, however, clouded leopards do not purr. Instead, they emit low-intensity snorting noises called prusten when engaged in friendly interactions with other individuals. Another form of communication, referred to as the long call, can be heard across substantial distances. Although the precise purpose of this sound is unknown, scientists believe it may function as a type of mating call between animals in different territories or a warning signal for other cats seeking to frequent a leopard’s home range.
Clouded leopards also possess multiple whiskers (or vibrissae) on their muzzles which enable these animals to detect various types of tactile stimuli, especially while foraging at night.
Clouded leopards are found south of the Himalayas, in Nepal, Bhutan, and some areas of northeastern India. Burma, southern China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and mainland Malaysia make up the southern parts of its geographic range. The two subspecies occupy different regions within this range; N. n. nebulosa is found from southern China to mainland Malaysia while N. n. macrosceloides is found from Burma to Nepal. A third subspecies, N. n. brachyuran, formerly occupied Taiwan, but it is now considered extinct.
The clouded leopard inhabits a variety of tropical and sub-tropical forests (i.e., evergreen, secondary, logged, dry, and coastal) as well as mangrove swamps and grasslands, some of which may be found at elevations approaching 3000 m (9900 ft). Moreover, its geographic distribution extends from India, southern China, Burma, and Indochina to Sumatra and Borneo. Despite such wide dispersal, the species actually has relatively low population sizes within these regions. More specifically, estimates place the total number of mature breeding individuals at fewer than 10,000, with no subpopulation presumed to contain more than 1000 sexually active adults.
In its natural setting, the clouded leopard is frequently an arboreal animal when hunting and resting. A typical individual occupies a territory that is 30 to 40 km2 (11.6 to 15.4 mi2), with a heavily used core area of 3 to 5 km2 (1.6 to 1.9 mi2). Also, male and female home ranges tend to be similar in size and usually overlap substantially. Furthermore, these living spaces are frequently shared with tigers and other leopard species that are the main predators of clouded leopards in addition to poachers.
Like other felids, the clouded leopard is a strict carnivore. It is also a solitary hunter whose patterned coat serves as camouflage when stalking prey or attempting to remain hidden from other predators. Preying primarily on birds, fish, monkeys, deer, wild boar, and rodents, this species has also been known to kill domestic animals such as calves, pigs, goats, and poultry. Expert tree climbing ability allows the clouded leopard to successfully ambush prey in the canopy as well as stalking it on the ground. Typically, an individual kills its prey with a bite to the back of the neck, which effectively severs the spine. Then, flesh is pulled off the carcass by repeatedly stabbing the meat with the incisors and large (up to two inches long) canines while abruptly jerking the head back.
Within its home range, the clouded leopard is considered one of the top predators, especially when tigers and other leopard species are few in number. Thus, this animal can assume an influential role in controlling group size of other species, effectively limiting their impact on the ecosystem. For example, by preying on deer and keeping population density low, clouded leopards prevent excessive stress on certain plant species.
Like other mammals, clouded leopards can become hosts for many types of internal and external parasites such as flukes, tapeworms, and ticks, many of which are likely acquired through contact with various prey species.
Threats and conservation status
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) classifies clouded leopards as vulnerable, while the U.S. Endangered Species Act prohibits the trade of any portion of the animal within the United States. Trade of clouded leopard products has also been strictly prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1975.
Presently, the chief threat for clouded leopard populations is habitat loss due to deforestation for agricultural purposes. As farmland cultivation continues to encroach on species habitats, incidences of clouded leopard attacks on livestock have increased, prompting villagers to use various poisons to eliminate this predator.
Species survival is also seriously jeopardized by illegal pet trade as well as poachers seeking valued body parts such as pelts, teeth, and flesh for sale on the black market and for use in traditional medicine, ceremonial, and culinary practices. Indeed, excessive demand for clouded leopard products has been identified as a major contributory factor in the demise of the Taiwanese subspecies.
Although the clouded leopard is granted protection under game laws and has been afforded refuge in parks and reserves, there is significant concern about the reduced genetic diversity and small numbers of breeding individuals in captivity. The Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) recognized these issues and established the Thailand Clouded Forest Foundation in the 1990s to research the behavior of this species while improving captive management and artificial reproduction. In 1998, 22 compatible pairs were identified and from January 1998 to August 2001, a total of 52 births occurred from 12 pairs. While these results were encouraging, the foundation continues to address the matters of limited gene pool and compatibility between mating pairs.
Efforts to preserve this species have also concentrated on establishing and monitoring a series of national parks in the countries of Nepal, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Unfortunately, due to the animal’s elusive nature and dense forest habitats, data on the numbers of individuals actually surviving in parks is limited and considered inaccurate.
Black market operations continue to erode population size of clouded leopards in the wild and conservationists face an uphill battle in seeking to address cultural practices involving this species. Even today, ownership of a clouded leopard pelt denotes a status symbol among men in some Asian countries. Body parts, especially claws, teeth, and bones, are still used in traditional medicine practices, while some upscale restaurants throughout Asia persist in offering this animal as a menu item.
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