Surprising rhythms of Leopards: Females are early birds, males are nocturnal

Wildlife

After 10 months of camera surveillance in the Tanzanian rainforest, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have become the first to conclude that female and male leopards are active at very different times of the day. The discovery contradicts previous assumptions and could be used to help protect the endangered feline, whose populations have dwindled by 85 percent over the past century.

Tanzania’s Udzungwa Mountains are carpeted by dense rainforest, making the area impossible to reach by jeep or other vehicles. As such, the leopards in this area have never been subject to the prying eyes of researchers. Until now.

After covering 2,500 square kilometers on foot, setting up 164 game camera traps and collecting more than 5000 days worth of footage from the area, the Natural History Museum of Denmark’s Rasmus W. Havmøller has discovered new and surprising knowledge about these spotted predators.

“I’m the first person to study leopards in this area, simply because it is so inaccessible. It took several pairs of good hiking boots, let me put it that way,” says Havmøller, who never actually got to see one of the shy leopards with his own eyes. Instead, he had to “settle” for buffalo and elephants.

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The glamorous moment when leopard feces is found and collected. Photo: Ramus W. Havmøller

Females are early birds, males are nocturnal

While Havmøller never caught a glimpse of a leopard himself, his 164 camera traps most certainly did. Using motion sensors, the cameras captured the leopards, as well as forest antelopes, baboons and other leopard prey on film. Camera observations revealed leopard behaviour that contradicts previous assumptions.

“In the past, leopards were thought to be most active at dusk. Very surprisingly, the study shows that leopards hunt and move around at very different times of the day depending on whether they are females or males,” says Rasmus W. Havmøller, who adds:

“Females are typically active from early through late morning, and then a bit before sunset, while males only really wake up at night.”

This is the first time that differences in activity patterns between male and female leopards have been studied.

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A leopard captured by the scientist’s camera trap. Photo: Ramus W. Havmøller

Last chance to study them

Differences between male and female leopards have only recently begun to be studied, so there is still much to learn about the animal. But researchers need to hurry. Rapidly growing human populations in Africa and India are the greatest threat to these animals, which are forced from their habitats and shot when they near livestock.

“Globally, things are going awfully for leopards, with sharp declines in their populations over the past 100 years. Furthermore, these animals aren’t monitored all that well. In part, this is because it is difficult. But also, because there has been a greater focus on species that are even more endangered, including lions, tigers and cheetahs. Therefore, it might be that the leopards in Udzungwa present the last chance to study these creatures in a diversified environment, one that has only been lightly impacted by humans, before they end up becoming highly endangered” explains Rasmus W. Havmøller.

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Camp life on one day of the 10 months during which Rasmus Havmøller studied leopards in the rainforest.

The researcher believes that the results will provide a better understanding of the lives of wild leopards – an understanding that may help prevent their complete extinction.

“The fact that female leopards are active well into the morning makes them more vulnerable to human activities, since this is when we as humans are most active. To protect something, one needs to have some knowledge about it. During my study, we also discovered that a leopard from the rainforest doesn’t move into semi-arid areas or onto the savannah, or vice versa. It’s very strange. Why they don’t is the next big question,” concludes Havmøller.

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