Few animals rival the beauty of the clouded leopard, one of nature’s most mysterious felines and a species which can be seen at the Houston Zoo.
Named for its cloud-shaped spots or “ellipses,” this nocturnal creature makes its home in the tropical rainforests and dry woodlands of Southeast Asia, and is considered one of the most acrobatic climbers in the cat family. “Cloudeds” can leap from tree to tree, maneuver quite well both above and beneath branches, hang upside-down by their hind feet, and even race head-first down vertical trunks. The cat’s long tail, which can reach three feet and is equal in length to the body, helps the animal maintain its balance high up in the forest canopy. Another unique feature of this species is its long canines, which are longer in proportion to body size than those of any other living cats. In a sense, the clouded leopard is a medium sized saber-toothed tiger designed for the treetops.
Although widely distributed and found in Indonesia, Burma, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Sumatra, southern China and Borneo, the clouded leopard is still categorized as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Its numbers are believed to be declining throughout its range and the population on Taiwan was recently extirpated – that is, wiped out. Being nocturnal and largely solitary in nature, this species has revealed little of its social behavior to even the most determined field researchers. However, recent genetic studies suggest that what was once thought to be a single species is actually two; populations inhabiting the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are significantly distinct from those of the mainland. This doesn’t come as a total surprise to evolutionary biologists, but it does give higher priority to conservation actions that target these isolated populations. The Houston Zoo currently supports several wildlife projects in the state of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo: orangutan field research, human-elephant conflict mitigation, and camera-trapping surveys for native cat species including the clouded leopard.
For more information about clouded leopards, go to www.cloudedleopard.org.