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THE LEOPARD, Panthera pardus, is found from Russia’s frozen north to southern Africa’s scorching Kalahari Desert. It is the world’s most widely distributed large cat as well as a keystone species; that is, one residing at the top of its food chain.
Most leopards are spotted. However, those inhabiting the Malay Peninsula are uniformly black; this, because of a genetic trait known as melanism. Named for a preponderance of melanin, the skin’s dark-color pigment, melanism is the opposite of albinism.
With the leopard, melanism is a recessive trait. Some cubs of a litter might be black; others clearly spotted. Even melanistic leopards have spots, but their black pigment all but hides the pattern.
It’s not known why melanism should prevail among the Malay big cats. Some suggest it offers selective advantage in hunting in the subdued light of the peninsula’s dense rain forests. Others say melanism might be linked to beneficial mutations in an animal’s immune system.
Also known as the black panther, this particular big cat is a challenge for wildlife researchers. Triggered cameras are the typical tool for monitoring population density, migration and other habits of animals in the wild. However, individual leopards are ordinarily identified by their unique patterns. Thus, until recently, Malay’s jet black leopards confounded this identification technique.
Then researchers from James Cook University Australia, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, devised an elegantly simple approach. They recognized that the melanistic cat’s spots were visible, though only at infrared wavelengths.
Said Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clement, “Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it’s only activated at night. However, by blocking the camera’s light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes.”
Note the image immediately above is time-stamped at 9:49:40 a.m., yet the black leopard’s spot pattern can be discerned. “We found we could accurately identify 94 percent of the animals,” said Dr. Clement.
This work yielded the first estimate of Malay leopard population density, important because researchers want to assess the animal’s habitat in the advance of encroaching palm oil and rubber plantations. There are fears of poaching as well, with leopard skins and body parts showing up in wildlife trading along the Myanmar-China border.
Said another researcher, Laurie Hedges of the University of Nottingham―Malaysia, “Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital. This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal.”
And it certainly yields some impressive infrared feline selfies. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015