How we used the leopard’s spots

Humans love to tell stories about the things that they see around them. All cultures have creation stories about why the world is the way it is. At a personal level we like to think that there is a narrative to our lives. No one really likes the thought that they live in a universe completely indifferent to our presence.

How did I end as a lecturer in zoology at Lincoln University? On one hand I could say that as a child I spent huge amounts of time at my grandparents who lived by the sea at Kaka Point, at the northern end of the Catlins. I would spend summers swimming and playing around in rock pools. I lived most of my childhood on farms with a variety of pets. It was natural that I would become interested in animals.

Rudyard Kipling published the Just So Stories in 1902.

I went to the University of Otago with the intention of becoming a biology teacher. The Department of Zoology was a natural fit. Soon I was seduced by evolutionary biology and animal behaviour. I spent a couple of summers working as the yellow-eyed penguin monitor. A life in research and academia beckoned. A lecturer’s position came up at Lincoln University as I completed my PhD. I was lucky enough to get that and here I have stayed.

A nice story. Of course, it could have been different. I could have gone down the farming route (I was the first person in my extended family to go to university). Lincoln could easily have gone for some other more applied position than wanting an expert in systematics and biodiversity. My wife could have wanted to live closer to her parents in the North Island. And so on.

One great story teller was Rudyard Kipling. He was a collosus of the writing world at the end of the 19th century. These days Rudyard Kipling gets a lot of bad press. He did some wonderful things, he was a great lyrical writer. The Jungle Book still plays a major role in the culture of our society (there have been two movie versions in the last three years for example). He also did some not so wonderful things. Kipling was writing at the height of the British Empire and had very strong views on the role of empire and the English in the world. These thoughts have not aged well and some of his writing has many of the objectionable tropes of the times with regards to race and gender.

How the leopard got it’s spots is one of the stories.

And then there are the Just So Stories. Kipling understood the power of the creation myth, the urge for people to tell a story, in hindsight, to explain the way things ended up the way they did. It seems clear to me that Kipling wrote these to emphasise and critique a particular way of thinking that he knew was wrong. Indeed, evolutionary biologists of the 1980s used the Just So Story as a metaphor for what was wrong with many explanations of natural selection.

The Just So Stories are so well written that they are a still pleasure to read, especially out loud. Each story is a creation story that explains how an animal got a particular feature. “How the whale got his throat“, “How the rhinoceros got his skin“, “The beginning of the armadillos” and many more. I became very familiar with some of the stories when I ran a Sunday student radio programme for kids back as a pPhD student. Rabbit Ears Productions put out several recordings of various Just So stories. You really haven’t lived until you have heard Jack Nicholson narrate (with Bobby McFerrin music) “How the camel got his hump” – it kept saying ‘humpt’ when the Djinn of All the Desert asked it to do some work and said it once too often – and “How the elephant got his trunk (the elephant’s child)” – the curious elephant child got too close to a crocodile who grabbed his nose and tried to pull him into the river.

The groupings of spots, or roseates, are different for each individual. Image from Muhammad Asad.

One of the Just So stories is about “How the leopard got his spots” (be aware that aspects of this particular story have not aged as well). Basically, the animals got tired of the leopard catching them. They were all the same colour at that point but escaped to the forest where they added stripes and blocks of other colours to blend in and hide. The leopard eventually had to join them by being able to hide in the dappled light of the bush. His good friend, the human, used his fingers to dab spots of colour onto the leopard’s coat. This explained why the leopard got it spots and why they are usually in groups of five (or a roseate).

Leopards are one of the most widespread territorial mammalian carnivore species on earth. They are found throughout Africa, the Middle-east, as well as most of Asia. Despite the wide distribution most populations are under serious threat of survival. In some areas we are unsure of which subspecies are present, or even whether leopards are still there at all.

Pakistan is one such area. Muhammad Asad spent his PhD based at Lincoln University working with Adrian Paterson and James Ross, as well Muhammad Waseem (WWF Pakistan), in trying to understand the distribution of leopards in Pakistan. He used genetics and morphology to identify which subspecies are present in the country. He also used ground searches and camera traps to look at densities and landscape distribution of leopards in northern Pakistan.

Muhammad was able to confirm leopard presence in the Swat, Dir and Margalla Hills regions. In the Gallies and Murree Forest Division Muhammad used camera-trapping in 63 sites of which leopards were photo captured at 27 locations with 195 images taken over 3,022 active trap-nights and two data collection seasons.

Muhammad presenting his work to the recent NZ Ecology Conference. Image from Adrian Paterson.

One advantage of taking photographs of leopards is that you can record the roseate pattern of their spots. It turns out that individuals have different patterns of spots. If the image is clear enough then you can identify individuals. Effectively, leopards are walking around with name tags on.

In a paper in Nature Conservation Muhammad reports that 15 individual leopards were detected in the first season of data collection at the study site thanks to the patterns of spots. In the second season, four of those individuals were seen again, as well as three new leopards.

Having identified individuals returning from one year to the next allowed Muhammad to do some Mark-Recapture analysis that estimated the detection probability (10-20%) of leopards in the population. Eleven of the leopards were not detected in the second year but are assumed to be still around.

Leopard images were captured by trail cameras from sites throughout northern Pakistan. Image from Muhammad Asad.

More usefully, this approach allowed Muhammad to calculate the populaiton of leopards in the area, 16–25 leopards, and their density at 4.5 to 9.5 leopards/100 km2. This approach, especially with being able to identify leopards by their spot patterns, will be of use to their conservation throughout Pakistan (and elsewhere). We can compare densities in different parts of the country, different habitats, over time and so on.

I think that Kipling would have liked the idea that the spots really are a key ingredient in the story of the leopard. The saying goes that a leopard never changes it spots. What a great thing it is that they do not! It allows our Just So Stories to become Just Good Data.

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