An incredibly rare strawberry-spotted leopard was captured on camera slinking through the wilds of South Africa’s Thabo Tholo Wilderness Area earlier this summer as it fed on the carcass of a giraffe killed during an electric storm, sparking intrigue from wildlife enthusiasts around the world.
“This is one of the rarest color variations in the world and over the last few months we have caught this female leopard on a few of our camera traps,” wrote the Black Leopard Mountain Lodge in a Facebook post.
“We were shocked when we went through the camera trap footage to find this unique feline feasting on the carcass during the day.”
According to the lodge, the golden leopard was first captured on camera in 2015 but was kept “under wraps” as experts continued to “monitor her progress over the years, making sure she survived to adulthood.”
What makes this strawberry-hued leopard so unique is likely a genetic mutation called erythrism, a recessive gene that is similar to that affecting albino animals but instead replaces the absence of normal pigment (in this case, the black seen in leopard spots) with excessive red pigmentation.
In humans, erythrism may play a role in red hair and freckles, but the condition has been seen across the animal kingdom. A pink female meadow grasshopper captured in the United Kingdom four years ago shows vibrant pink hues, while brightly colored katydids have been seen in the wild. A study published in 1982 described Plethodon cinereus, a type of salamander found in the northeastern US, exhibiting erythrism as a potential deterrent from their predator, the blue jay. As many as one-in-four salamanders had the unusual pigmentation to potentially mimic “red, noxious, and toxic” animals. Similarly, erythristic eggs have been observed in both gull and tern populations.
But erythristic leopards (Panthera pardus) are exceedingly rare in the wild with only a few existing records, five of which were found in India, according to a 2016 study published in Bothalia African Biodiversity and Conservation. Researchers at the time set out to record the prevalence of such reddish-colored leopards across two South African sites, including Thaba Tholo Wilderness Reserve. They found that just two out of 28 individual leopards – or just over 7 percent – exhibited such color variations in the region.
“There is a high degree of coat color variation between geographic populations of leopards,” wrote the authors at the time. “Individuals from arid regions are generally pale with dispersed and open-centered rosettes, in contrast to those residing in forests which are darker with clustered and small-centered rosettes. These patterns are thought to correspond with different vegetation types and light levels in order to conceal the animal from prey and possibly other predators.”
Though the authors are quick to caution that their answer is “highly speculative”, they propose the high level of erythristic leopards in the region could be due to reporting bias or may “reflect leopards released or escaping from captive breeding programs,” which could additionally explain why leopards have the color-morphing gene. At the time of the study, nine game ranches in South Africa were breeding leopards for trophy hunting. However, population fragmentation and isolation could have reduced population size, meaning the genes are more likely to be passed down to subsequent generations.