Taxonomy of subspecies

When between 1777 and 1964 leopard subspecies were described, most of them were recognized on the basis of feature diagnostics and variation in coat patterns. Pellage coloration however is subjective and highly variable between individuals; length and thickness of hair cover changes with the seasons. Thus, coat pattern is unlikely to be a reliable means of distinguishing subspecies.

Today, other means of diagnostics have become the basis for determining and regrouping subspecies found in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Molecular biologists have attempted to incorporate genetic differentiation into the definition of a subspecies, but controversy continues over the best approach.

Subspecies of the Middle East

The following taxonomy is based on the analysis of skull size carried out in 2006 by Igor Khorozyan and his colleagues. They measured 40 skulls of leopards from North and South Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Arabia. Considering the variation of cranial measurements they suggest to retain 5 of the 9 designated subspecies of the Middle East, namely:

Arabian leopard P.p. nimr
inhabits the Arabian Peninsula and was first described in 1833. Its uniqueness was confirmed by molecular genetic studies.
Sinai leopard P.p. jarvisi
was described from the Sinai Peninsula in the 1930s and has become extinct in the mid-1960s.
Anatolian leopard P.p. tulliana
was described in 1856 and used to occur across most of Turkey. This subspecies was considered to be extinct since 1956, until in 1992 fresh faecal pellets and in the following years also footprints were found in the Termossos National Park in Turkey. Now the Anatolian leopard is categorized as critically endangered.
Caucasian leopard P.p. ciscaucasica

= P.p. transcaucasica

Persian leopard P.p. saxicolor

inhabits the Great Caucasus ridge, the highlands of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the mountaineous regions of northern Iran, eastern Turkey, Turkmenistan and most likely also the north-western areas of Afghanistan. All recent records from Turkey come from the country's eastern part close to Georgia, Armenia and Iran. P.p. ciscausica was first described in 1914, P.p. saxicolor in 1927 and P.p. transcaucasica in 1964.
Sind or Baluchistan leopard P.p. sindica

Central Persian leopard P.p. dathei

inhabits southern Iran, south-western Pakistan and most likely also the southern parts of Afghanistan. This subspecies evolved being separated from P.p. ciscaucasica by the vast salt deserts in eastern and central Iran.

P.p. sindica was described from only 2 skulls found in Baluchistan in the 1930s. The name P.p. dathei refers to 2 straw-stuffed specimen found in southern Iran in 1959.

Kashmir leopard P.p. millardi
was described from one skull found in northern Pakistan in 1930 and is probably synonymous to P.p. sindica. Molecular genetic studies however suggest that individuals living east of the Indus are closely associated with populations of Nepal and India.

Asian subspecies

Eight subspecies have been designated in Asia:

  • Indian leopard P.p. fusca in 1794, Nepal leopard P.p. pernigra in 1863 and Kashmir leopard P.p. millardi in 1930 -- inhabits the Indian subcontinent, i.e. the area south of the Himalayas, dispersing to the Indus river basin in the west, and to the Ganges delta in the east. In a morphological analysis these 3 subspecies could not be distinguished from each other, but only a few specimen of P.p. pernigra and P.p. millardi were available for this study.
  • Java leopard P.p. melas in 1809 -- inhabits the Indonesian island of Java.
  • Amur leopard P.p. orientalis in 1857 -- inhabits the Amur region of the Russian Far East.
  • North Chinese leopard P.p. japonensis in 1862 -- inhabits northern China.
  • Indochinese leopard P.p. delacouri in 1930 -- inhabits Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and South China.
  • Sri Lanka leopard P.p. kotiya in 1956 -- inhabits Sri Lanka.

Molecular genetic analysis revealed significant variation between specimen representing these six populations. The captive-bred specimen of P.p. orientalis and P.p. japonensis proved to be genetically very close, which implies that these populations may not be distinct.

African subspecies

Twelve subspecies have been designated in Africa:

  • North African leopard P.p. pardus in 1758
  • Barbary leopard P.p. panthera in 1777
  • West African forest leopard P.p. leopardus in 1777
  • Cape leopard P.p. melanotica in 1885
  • East African leopard P.p. suahelicus in 1900
  • Somalian leopard P.p. nanopardus in 1904
  • Ugandan leopard P.p. chui in 1913
  • West African leopard P.p. reichenowi in 1918
  • Eritrean leopard P.p. antinorii in 1923
  • Congo leopard P.p. iturensis in 1924
  • Central African leopard P.p. shortridgei in 1932
  • Zanzibar leopard P.p. adersi in 1932.

Genetic analysis and morphological analysis of cranial characters failed to reveal significant variation between the African subspecies. Therefore some biologists strongly argue for subsuming all African populations under one trinomial, Panthera pardus pardus, using the principle of priority in taxonomic nomenclature.