The black leopards of the Malaysian Peninsula may look like they have uniform dark coats, but hidden cameras with infrared light have revealed a surprise: The black cats sport the characteristic leopard spots within their dark-hued coats.
The new insight has allowed conservationists to reliably identify individual animals based on camera traps, the first step in preventing widespread poaching, according to new research.
“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” lead author Laurie Hedges, a zoology graduate at the University of Nottingham in England, said in a statement. “This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal.”
Leopards are the most widely dispersed wild cat in the world, showing up everywhere from sub-Saharan Africa to the Russian Far East. Most have a distinctive and immediately recognizable spotting pattern, and for decades, the ubiquitous “leopard print” has shown up on bathing suits, fur coats and countless tacky 1970s-era bedspreads.
But a 2010 study in the Journal of Zoology study found that almost all Malay leopards have the gene for melanism, or black coats. Scientists don’t know exactly why, though some suspect the black cats evolved their shadowy coats to better camouflage themselves while hunting in the dense jungles of the island nation.