The clouded leopard is a medium-sized wild cat found in the forests of Asia. Little is known about the wild behavior of clouded leopards due to their extremely secretive nature. Much of our understanding of this cat’s natural history and behavior is a result of observations of them in captivity.
While all species of cats are closely related and classified as one family, the Felidae, genetic research has shown the clouded leopard to be more closely related to the large cat species. For this reason, clouded leopards are considered a member of the Pantherinae - a subfamily of the Felidae
family that also includes lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, and snow leopards. Clouded leopards are not a “type” of leopard as their name implies. They are a separate species of wild cat, as is the snow leopard and leopard. Because it is sufficiently different from the other members of the cat family, the clouded leopard is classified as the sole member of the genus Neofelis. Its scientific name is Neofelis nebulosa.
The clouded leopard is named for the cloud-like spots of its coat that provide camouflage in its forest habitat. Males weigh up to 50 pounds and females are significantly smaller, usually 25-35 pounds.
Clouded leopards are one of the best climbers in the cat family. They are able to climb upside down underneath tree branches and hang from branches with their hind feet. Several adaptations allow clouded leopards to achieve these amazing arboreal skills. Their legs are short and stout, providing excellent leverage and a low center of gravity while climbing. Large paws with sharp claws allow cloudeds to gain a good grip on tree branches. A clouded leopard’s tail can be up to 3 feet long (the same length as its
body) and is extremely important as a balancing aid. The hind feet possess flexible ankle joints that allow the foot to rotate greatly. This adaptation allows clouded leopards to descend, squirrel-like, head first from a tree.
Another distinctive feature of the clouded leopard is its long canine teeth. These canines are longer in proportion to body size than those of any other species of wild cat.
Clouded leopards primarily utilize lowland tropical rainforest habitats, but can also be found in dry woodlands and secondary forests. They have also been spotted in the foothills of the Himalayas at an elevation of 9000 feet. Range countries historically included most of Southeast Asia from Nepal and southern China through Thailand, Indonesia, and Borneo. Currently four subspecies are recognized:
|Neofelis nebulosa brachyurus
||Taiwan - Thought to be extinct in the wild
|Neofelis nebulosa diardi
||Sumatra, Borneo, and Java
|Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides
||Nepal to Burma
|Neofelis nebulosa nebulosa
||Southern China to eastern Burma
Like all wild cats, clouded leopards are carnivores. They are thought to hunt a variety of prey including birds, squirrels, monkeys, deer, and wild pigs. It was once thought that clouded leopards hunted while climbing. Current thought, however, is that while some hunting may occur in the trees, most likely takes place on the ground. Trees are thought to provide resting habitat for cloudeds during the day.
Virtually nothing is known of the social behavior of wild clouded leopards. They are likely solitary, like most cats, unless associated with a mate while breeding or accompanied by cubs. Likewise, activity patterns are virtually unknown. Once thought to be exclusively nocturnal, evidence suggests that cloudeds may show some periods of activity during the day as well.
Clouded leopards are sexually mature around the age of 2 years. Mating can occur in any month, but in captivity most breeding occurs between December and March. The gestation period is between 85 and 93 days with 1 to 5 cubs produced per litter. Cubs are independent at approximately 10 months of age. Females can produce a litter every year.
In captivity, clouded leopards present a reproductive challenge. Unfortunately, there is a high incidence of aggression between males and females, sometimes resulting in the death of the female. This fact has made clouded leopards one of the most difficult cats to breed in
captivity. Present captive management practices include introducing the members of a pair prior to one year of age. This practice has resulted in the establishment of more successful pair-bonds and lessening of aggression.
The clouded leopard is listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act, as an Appendix I endangered species by CITES, and vulnerable by IUCN. It is protected from hunting in most range countries, although this protection is rarely enforced. Wild clouded leopard numbers are thought to be in decline although population estimates do not exist.