When researchers try to study the leopards in Malaysia they have a hard time telling the cats apart because instead of the amazing spotted colouring of a normal leopard, these leopards have a completely black coat … or so it seems.
Using images caught with infrared light, just published in The Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers at the James Cook University in Australia unveiled the black leopard’s amazing spots.
Much like each human fingerprint is different, or each zebra has different stripes, a leopard’s spots are unique and scientists can use their patterns to identify individual animals.
If you look at the black leopards, or visit them in zoos, your eyes might catch spots hidden underneath their black coats. But while we can sometimes see the spots, the camera traps that the researchers use to monitor the leopards don’t pick the spots up distinctly enough for researchers to tell the cats apart and count the population:
By using the camera trap’s infrared flash during the day (tricking it by blocking the light sensor) researchers were able to take some fantastic images of the leopards’ unique spots:
How the infrared light made the spots stand out has to do with the light’s wavelength.
The infrared light has a longer wavelength than visible light, under that longer wavelength the less pigmented background coat colour, the black, becomes lighter while the more heavily pigmented spots remain dark.
These spot patterns amazingly look like the spots of normal leopards, just hidden in the black of the cat’s coat:
And they are just as useful for identifying individual animals: These infrared images let the researchers identify 94% of the individual leopards they caught on camera.
Researchers and conservationists are monitoring the black leopard population because these beautiful animals face increasing threats from both habitat loss, as oil palm plantations replace natural forest, and poaching.
With this new tool, researchers can monitor how the leopard population is faring in an increasingly changing environment.
As study researcher Laurie Hedges said in a statement: “This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal.”
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