by Hannah Schardt
The fuzzy little leopard cub in the photo above may be cute, but it also has the makings of a star athlete. Once it's all grown up, it will be super fast and super strong. It will be a champion tree-climber. And it would win just about any game of hide-and-seek!
Sure, leopard cubs spend the first two months of their lives being carried by their mothers from one safe spot to another. And after that, they stick close to their moms for another year or longer.
They learn from her how to stalk, catch, and guard their prey. But all that mom-time is just training. In no time at all, this spotted little cub will be—like all leopards—an athletic superstar.
BUILT FOR THE HUNT
Leopards are plenty big. A male can grow to be 200 pounds and more than 6 feet long, including his tail. (Females are quite a bit smaller.) But their cousins—lions, tigers, and jaguars—are all even bigger. Still, leopards have bodies that are packed with muscles and built for hunting. Their big heads, strong jaws, and sharp teeth are perfect for chomping down on prey. Plus, spotted coats help them hide among leaves and grass. This makes them nearly invisible to prey when they lie still.
ON THE PROWL
These spotted cats are most active at night. That's when they catch most of their food. And they aren't picky—leopards eat almost anything they can hunt down. In Africa, where most leopards live, antelope are their favorite food. But they will eat monkeys, rodents, frogs, and birds, too.
Leopards aren't very picky about where they live, either. They spend their time in dense rainforests, dry deserts, or almost anywhere in between. But where they eat is even more interesting.
IN THE TREETOPS
Leopards are top-notch tree-climbers—much better than their bigger cat cat cousins. Can you imagine being able to climb down a tree trunk headfirst? Leopards do it! And once a leopard catches its dinner, it will drag the animal high up into a tree to devour it—even if the prey is as big as the leopard itself. That way, other hungry creatures can't steal the meal. Lions may be bigger and stronger, and cheetahs may be faster. But when it comes to leaping, hiding, and especially climbing, leopards take home the all-around gold.
Leopards once lived all over much of Africa and Asia. They are still common in Africa, and in some parts of Asia. But as human populations grow, leopards became rarer—and sometimes extinct—in the rest of their range. (See map above.)