The saying “a leopard cannot change its spots” means people can’t change who they are. However, while leopards can’t transform their spots entirely, they can conceal them, according to an online paper published in Journal of Wildlife Management.
Researchers from various Australian universities have been documenting the leopards along the Malay Peninsula. Unfortunately for them, it’s not an easy task – almost all the leopards are black.
"In the same way a genetic mutation can cause some individuals within a species to display albino characteristics, black panthers are simply individuals that have a genotype causing a uniformly black coloration on their coat," Laurie Hedges, a carnivore researcher from the University of Nottingham, told mongabay. "In total 13 species of wild felids have been documented with 'melanistic' or black forms, but apart from the difference in coloration, they are still the same species as their patterned counter parts."
Thankfully, these researchers have now found an easy way to spot the difference – and it’s all in the camera.
"Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it's only activated at night," Dr. Gopalasamy Reuben Clements of James Cook University said in a press release. "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."
Using their cameras in this way revealed the hidden, distinctive leopard print we are familiar with, which could be used to differentiate between different animals. The team were able to accurately identify 94% of the leopards caught on camera.
This chance revelation has become the first approximation of the leopards’ population density in Malaysia. Researchers estimate there are about three Malay leopards for every 100 square kilometers (38.6 square miles).
This brand new method could greatly aid future research and conservation efforts.