Asiatic lioness adopts leopard cub

February 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

by Greg Mayer

A paper just published by Dheeraj Mittal and colleagues in Ecosphere reports an Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) that adopted a leopard (Panthera pardus) cub, nursing and feeding it along with its own two cubs for six weeks.

Asiatic lioness, leopard cub, and lion cub in the Gir Forest, India. Photo by D. Mittal.

As WEIT readers know, Asiatic lions survive in only a single relict population in Gujarat in northwestern India, where they coexist with leopards (but not tigers, which have been extirpated in Gujarat). As the only lions in all of Asia, they are carefully monitored by Indian wildlife biologists, and in December 2018 they spotted the leopard cub in the company of the lions. From the paper:

Contrary to the accepted understanding of lion–leopard interactions, in December 2018, we came across an adult free-ranging Asiatic lioness (Panthera leo persica) taking care of a leopard cub (P. pardus fusca) in addition to her own young cubs in the Gir forests of Gujarat, Western India (Fig. 1A). Over the course of the next one and a half months,we intimately monitored this lioness that was recorded to nurse the leopard cub and rear it as her own (Fig. 2). The leopard cub (a male of~2 months with characteristic blue haze in its eyes that indicated its very young age; Fig. 1B) was always found to be associated with the lioness: suckling from her, feeding from kills that she made, and playing with its foster siblings (Fig. 2). The prolonged duration and the ecological context of the observed foster care between these two sympatric and competing felids are bizarre and stimulate intriguing behavioral questions.

The New York Times interviewed one of Mittal’s co-authors, Stotra Chakrabarti of the University of Minnesota.

“The lioness took care of him like one of her own,” nursing him and sharing meat that she hunted, Dr. Chakrabarti said.

His new siblings, too, were welcoming, playing with their spotty new pal and occasionally following him up trees. In one photo, the leopard pounces on the head of one of his adoptive brothers, who is almost twice his size and clearly a good sport. “It looked like two big cubs and one tiny runt of the litter,” Dr. Chakrabarti said.

He has been studying the park’s lions for nearly seven years. This unlikely association “was surely the most ‘wow’ moment I’ve come across,” Dr. Chakrabarti said. His fellow researchers with an Asiatic lion conservation project in India, some who have been watching the big cats for decades, had “also not seen anything like this,” he said.

Sadly, the leopard cub was found dead after about six weeks. An autopsy revealed that it died of a congenital femoral hernia; it had not been abandoned or killed by the lions, and, given its condition, it was probably doomed from the start.

From an evolutionary perspective, rearing an allospecific cub would not be advantageous. Indeed, leopards and lions are competitors, and will kill one another as opportunity arises.  But, to paraphrase Yoda, the Baby Schema is strong with this one, and the juvenile features of essentially all amniotes that elicit the “awwww” response in humans seems to work in lions, too. It leads in this instance to what Mittal el al. call a nonadaptive ‘reproductive error’.

Mittal, D, S. Chakrabarti, S.B. Khambda, and J.K. Bump. 2020. Spots and manes: the curious case of foster care between two competing felids. Ecosphere 11(2):e03047. pdf

Yet more felids: the Javan leopard

May 23, 2013 • 2:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

We’ve noted a number of times here on WEIT the great things that have been done using camera traps to survey rare and endangered species, especially felids. Age Kridalaksana of the Center for International Forestry Research has gotten pictures and produced a video of his successful search for the Javan leopard, Panthera pardus melas (see also the video on conservation challenges in Indonesia). He got photos of three leopards, one of which was melanic. The  Javan population is thought to be about 250 adults.

Javan leopard, Panthera pardus melas, by Age Kriskalana
Javan leopard, Panthera pardus melas, by Age Kridalaksana.

The large mammals of the big Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java, and Borneo are very interesting biogeographically. At the peak of the last glaciation, all of these islands (which lie on the continental shelf) were united to the mainland  (see previous WEIT coverage on this here), so at that time large mammals could wander across all three islands. As the waters rose from the melting glaciers and the lands were cut off, species went extinct on the newly forming islands. It’s not easy to predict where a given species would survive. For the three big cats, each has a different distribution pattern: the leopard only on Java, the tiger on Sumatra and Java (and Bali), and the clouded leopard on Sumatra and Borneo. There are old stories of tigers on Borneo, but specimens can be obtained from the other islands by trade, so its survival there into historic times has never been verified.

As might be expected given its isolation from the main range on the mainland, the Javan leopard is a genetically well marked subspecies (see reference below).

h/t Mongabay


Banks, E.A. 1931. A popular account of the mammals of Borneo. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 9(2):1-139.

Uphyrkina, O., W.E. Johnson, H. Quigley, D. Miquelle, L. Marker, M. Bush and S.J. O’Brien. 2001. Phylogenetics, genome diversity and origin of modern leopard, Panthera pardus. Molecular Ecology 10:2617–2633. (pdf)

Caturday felid– No. 1, the jaguar

November 13, 2010 • 8:34 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry recently posted about a new analysis of cat coat color patterns by William Allen and colleagues from the University of Bristol that is in press in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at one of the species in the analysis, that I was able to photograph recently: the jaguar, Panthera onca.

It kind of looks like he’s about to spring and make a meal of me, but I didn’t take the picture in a tropical American forest, but at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Jaguars are of course spotted cats, with dark rosettes on a lighter background. Leopards (Panthera pardus), found in Africa and Asia, are rather similar, but jaguars have a dot in the middle of many of the rosettes. Jaguars also have a relatively larger head and more muscular forequarters, which are also noticeable in the next picture.As Jerry noted in his post, Allen and colleagues found that spotted patterns were significantly associated with closed or forested habitats. The jaguar is a bit of a problem in this regard, as it is a habitat generalist, found in the semi-desert of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, as well as in Neotropical rainforests. The authors attempted to account for varying degrees of habitat usage and specialization, although they did apparently miss the jaguar’s occurrence in semi-desert.