“Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most graceful and the most beautiful of all animals in our Indian jungles.” (Jim Corbett. 1944)
Leopards are beautiful creatures. Their sleek, slender bodies move with an elegance that is matched only by the most skilled ballet dancer. They appear to move effortlessly, with their big soft paws almost gliding from the ground to the air with each step. They move with grace. And in pure silence. All felids are supreme ambush predators. Leopards are the top cat.
I was inspired to write this post by an intriguing enquiry a couple of years ago. Working in a museum, I am lucky to have fascinating specimens brought in for identification. And they are wonderful fun as I never know what I am going to get. Even if it is something familiar, or ‘common’, for the person who has brought it in, it is special: they found it. Nothing is greater than sharing the excitement with a member of the public and their discovery.
This particular enquiry was extremely exciting, as it had hints of being a Pleistocene leopard tooth. Working with the enquirer, and Jane Evans at the British Geological Survey, we did some chemical analysis to find out where it was from. I won’t spoil the surprise. You can read the full article here for free.
Today leopards have a fairly wide-range across the African and Asian continents. With ten sub-species, this magnificent cat is endangered through habitat destruction and human hunting. Each individual sub-species is just as beautiful as the next. The gloriously proud African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) is more familiar to most of us. An expert stalker in the long dry grass of the scrub, this silent hunter has a fairly opportunistic appetite from rodents to birds, to bigger antelopes. The critically endangered Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas) is found only on the island of Java. Some individuals of the Javan leopard have been seen with a pure black coat, similar to a jaguar.
During the Late Pleistocene, these slender felines were very well established across most of Europe. With over 70 European sites including Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and Bosnia, yielding remains of the Pleistocene leopard, Panthera pardus spelaea, this was a successful beast.
The leopard has a long history in Europe, and it appears that a few sub-species migrated in and were replaced by later groups. Around 600,000 years ago an enigmatic leopard that lived during the warm interglacial, P. p. sickenbergi, is known from sites in Germany, France and the Czech Republic. The fossil record of this leopard is not great, with a few skull remains and a scatter of postcranial remains. Not a great sample, but distinct enough to be recognised as a sub-species. A second migration of these cats from Africa of another sub-species, P. p. antiqua appears around 300,000 years ago during another warm phase. These guys radiated out across Europe around 160,000 years ago taking advantage of the warming climate.
Our beast, P. p. spelaea appears in Europe around 120,000 years ago, and was a very successful animal. Spread so far across Europe it was adapted to a variety of environments. From the Mammoth Steppe to mixed forests to treeless mountains, the cave leopard was a survivor. It’s extinction in Europe was likely due to the extreme climatic changes at the end of the Pleistocene, which pushed the leopard into smaller pockets. It may be that these pockets were already occupied by humans, so additional competition was too much on these highly stressed populations.
But what about Britain? If leopards were so widely distributed across Europe, surely they must have been present in Britain?
There have been two confirmed localities where a leopard tooth at each has been found: Bleadon in Somerset, and Pontnewydd Cave, in South Wales. Intriguingly, an article written in 1940 mentions 5 other sites where leopards have been found: Newbon, Essex; Spritsail Tor, Gower; Banwell, Somerset; Hutton/Sandford Hill, Somerset; and Cresswell Crags, Derbyshire. The specimen from Banwell has been classed as actually coming from Bleadon. The whereabouts of the specimens from the other four sites are unknown, so should be treated with caution.
Late Pleistocene leopards appear to have been fairly rare in British records. This could be due to the enormous glacier that covered much of Great Britain around 20,000 years ago, pushing its way as far south as the Thames. Carnivores are not as numerous as herbivores, so it may be that the cave leopard in Britain was just not very abundant. There may be another reason.
Examining the chemicals in the teeth of the British sabre tooth cat, Homotherium latidens, two researchers suggest that the chemical signature doesn’t actually correspond with the British record. The only explanation: the teeth were brought into Britain from humans travelling from Europe. Perhaps humans were keeping teeth of this incredible sabre-tooth as trophies. Could the same be true for leopards? Possibly. With abundant European sites, it may be that the British leopards are not actually British. Future work on these specimens will shed more light.
I like to imagine this silent hunter, crouched, hiding unseen by other animals and humans. A time when forest tundra covered much of Europe instead of concrete cities. A time when this magnificent feline was at its height of sucess, and sprung into action bringing down its next meal.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
Buckland, W. (1823), ‘Reliquiae Diluvianae’, John Murray, London. [Book]
Corbett, J. (1944), ‘Man-eaters of Kumaon.’ Oxford University Press. [Book]
Currant, A. P. (1984), ‘The Mammalian Remains’. In: Green, H. S. (Ed). Pontnewydd Cave. A Lower Palaeolithic hominid site in Wales. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. pp.171-180. [Book]
Currant, A, & Jacobi, R. (2001). ‘A formal mammalian biostratigraphy for the Late Pleistocene of Britain’ Quaternary Science Reviews. 20. pp.1707-1716. [Full article]
Currant, A. (2004), ‘The Quaternary mammal collections at the Somerset County Museum in Taunton’, In: Schreeve, D. C. (Ed) The Quaternary Mammals of Southern and Eastern England. Field Guide. pp.101-109. [Book]
Diedrich, C, G. (2013), ‘Late Pleistocene leopards across Europe – northernmost European German population, highest elevated records in the Swiss Alps, complete skeletons in the Bosnic Herzegowina Dinairds and comparison to the Ice Age Cave Art’, Quaternary Science Reviews. 76. pp. 167-193. [Abstract only]
Freedman, J. & Evans, J. (2015), ‘Working with the Public: How an unusual museum enquiry turned into travels through space and time.’ Open Quaternary. 1(8). pp.1-14. [Full article]
McFarlane, D A. & Lundberg, J. (2013), ‘On the occurrence of the scimitat-tooth cat, Homotherium latidens (Carnivora; Felidae), at Kent’s Cavern, England’ Journal of Archaeological Science. 40. pp.1629-1635. [Full article]
Nowell, K. & Jackson, P. (1996) ‘Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan.’ IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. [Full article]
Schmid, E. (1940). Variationsstatistische Untersuchungen am Gebis pleistozäner und rezenter Leoparden und anderer Feliden. Zeitschrist für Säugetierkunde. 15. pp.1-179.
Stuart, A J. (1982), Pleistocene Vertebrates in the British Isles. Longman Group Ltd. [Book]