Infrared camera reveals hidden spots on black leopards

The mysterious black leopards found in the Malaysian Peninsula have spots after all! New research published this week in the Journal of Wildlife Management shows that you can only see them if you’re looking in the right wavelength of light.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham and James Cook University in the UK explained that they rigged the infrared flashes of automatic cameras to activate at all times by blocking the light sensors of the devices.

Doing so allowed them to see complex patterns of spotting on the ordinarily plain-looking black leopards, making it possible for them to distinguish between different animals and to help estimate the population sizes of the species. This discovery could be the first step in limiting or preventing poaching according to LiveScience.

“Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital,” lead author Laurie Hedges, a zoology graduate from the University of Nottingham, explained. “This new approach gives us a novel tool to help save this unique and endangered animal.”

Technique can identify the creatures with 94 percent accuracy

While most leopards possess a distinctive and easily-visible pattern of spots, research published in 2010 found that nearly all Malay leopards possess have the gene for melanism, or black coats. The reason for this is unknown, but some experts believe they might have evolved as a way for the cats to camouflage themselves while hunting.

“This black coat may have made them ‘perfect stalkers’ in our dimly lit Malaysian jungle,” said co-author Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, “and this advantage may have helped them compete with tigers for similar-sized prey.”

In order to protect these creatures, conservationists first need to determine how many of them there are, and that’s where the new camera trick used by the UK research team comes into play. By rigging the automatic camera trap to snap photos in the infrared spectrum at all times, they were able to find their hidden spots and confirm the identities of these black leopards.

This phenomenon, the researchers explained to LiveScience, is a result of the pigment eumelanin in their fur coats. The longer the wavelength of light that hits the pigment, the better it transmits the light, and because the near infrared light from the camera traps has a longer wavelength than ordinary light, it allows them to see the spots on the cats’ fur coats.

“We found we could accurately identify 94 percent of the animals,” he added. “This will allow us to study and monitor this population over time, which is critical for its conservation.”

(Image credit: James Cook University)

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