A black leopard mother emerges from her den in Kenya

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Black is the New Black

More Black Leopards Spotted in Kenya

Recently we shared trail camera footage of an ultra-rare black leopard living in Kenya. Now our team has video of another black leopard and her two cubs, one of which is also black. This brings the confirmed total of black leopards in our study area to five! Getting video of one black leopard is exciting, but finding five of them is astonishing.

Just Like Mom

This mother and her cubs are new to the research team. While the mother is black herself, she has a cub of each color—one gold and one black. The family was recorded by trail cameras, which are motion-triggered digital cameras that are mounted to tree trunks. These sturdy outdoor cameras are funded by donors, and we’re so grateful. Wonderful discoveries like this are only possible because of our supporters’ generosity.

A black leopard cub and a gold leopard cub explore their home in Kenya

LEFT: The black leopard cub takes after its mother. RIGHT: The gold leopard cub likely takes after its father.

It’s in the Genes

The mother and cub’s black coats are caused by a condition called melanism, which is a high concentration of the pigment melanin. Melanin occurs naturally in humans and animals, providing color in skin, hair or fur, and eyes. Higher concentrations of the dark-brown-to-black pigment produce darker hues.

Melanism is rare because it’s a recessive trait, meaning that the genes that cause it are almost always “over-written” by the dominant genes that cause the typical gold and black coloration in leopards. A rare genetic mutation caused a surplus of melanin in the mother and the black cub’s fur, making their coats appear all-black. But although their coats look like they are solid black, the mother and cub are still dappled with iconic black rosettes, or spots, which are visible in certain light conditions.

A black leopard mother emerges from her den in Kenya

The black leopard mother's rosettes, or spots, can be seen here on her hind leg.

A Good Chance

To have one gold cub and one black cub, it’s likely that the mother mated with a male that was not melanistic, but carried the genes for it. In a chance occurrence, the black cub received the melanism genes from both mother and father, resulting in its atypical coloration. Meanwhile the gold cub received the dominant gold genes from its father, instead of the melanistic genes, resulting in that cub’s typical leopard coloration.

A black leopard cub explores its home in Kenya

The black leopard cub explores outside the family den. Its rosettes are just visible in this light.

Leopards for the Long Term

Listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), leopard populations suffer from poaching, habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict. The international news coverage from these exciting finds is bringing much-needed attention to the conservation of leopards, which are elusive and challenging to study. The more we know about them, the better equipped we are to save them from extinction.

San Diego Zoo Global is working with partners in Africa to track and research leopard populations, so that we can preserve their ecosystems and protect their species. Your support makes this important work possible.

Learn more about leopards, the challenges they face, and how you can help them.

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