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article imageJet-black leopards have spots that may save their species

By Karen Graham     Jul 14, 2015 in Science
Scientists at James Cook University in Australia have discovered a quick way to identify individual jet-black leopards. The rare black leopards are found on the Malay peninsula, and are endangered.
In studies of leopards on the Malay peninsula, researchers discovered most of the big cats were jet-black, rather than brown with black spots. Experts have no idea why the leopards are jet-black and until the breakthrough by JCU scientists, had no way of identifying individuals, hindering conservation efforts.
In a press release on Tuesday, JCU scientists say, "they have devised a simple method to solve the problem by manipulating the mechanism of automatic cameras."
"Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it's only activated at night", said Dr Gopalasamy Reuben Clements from JCU. "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.
Black leopard shot with infrared camera.
Black leopard shot with infrared camera.
The researchers discovered that with the infrared flash firing, the leopard's spots showed up, revealing complex patterns of spotting on each animal. Armed with this new information, and being able to now distinguish individual animals, they were able to estimate population size.
Testing the method on leopards in the north-east of peninsular Malaysia, Dr Clements said, "We found we could accurately identify 94 percent of the animals. This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation."
The researchers want to use this method in other parts of peninsular Malaysia, where prey is abundant, but black leopard populations are low. There is a fear that poaching may be to blame. "Many dead leopards bearing injuries inflicted by wire snares have been discovered in Malaysia," said Distinguished Professor William Laurance from JCU.
Professor Laurance added that leopard skins and body parts are increasingly being seen in wildlife trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border. The destruction of habitat is another concern, as forests are cut down and replaced by palm oil and rubber plantations.
"Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital," said Laurie Hedges from the University of Nottingham - Malaysia, lead author of the study. "This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal."
The black leopards of Peninsular Malaysia are extremely rare.Their black coloration is known as "melanism." It is found in some mammals, especially in big cats, where some individuals who would normally have spots or colors in the coat are completely black. "This is perhaps the only known example of a wild mammal with virtually an entire population composed of black individuals," said Laurie Hedges.
The study was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management online May 26,2015 under the title: "Melanistic leopards reveal their spots: Infrared camera traps provide a population density estimate of leopards in malaysia."
More about jet black leopards, infrared, Spots, malay peninsula, camera flash
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