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2006 Summer paw
The Unusual Skull of the Clouded Leopard
Summer 2006

Studies by Dr. Per Christiansen of the Copenhagen's Zoological Museum reveal new insights into the unusual skull of the clouded leopard. It has long been known that the clouded leopard has the longest upper canine teeth for its skull size of any modern carnivore, causing some people to compare the cat with the extinct saber-toothed cat. Dr. Christiansen's research into the skull characteristics of both living and extinct cats has revealed that that the clouded leopard has a skull unlike any other cat today. In a number of respects it bears distinctive resemblance to the primitive saber-toothed cats, before they became highly specialised and developed enormous upper fangs. This could indicate that one lineage of modern cats, of which now only the clouded leopard is still present, evolved some adaptations in common with the true saber-toothed cats. It also indicates that the clouded leopard may hunt large prey in the wild in a slightly different manner from other great cats. At the very least, it suggests that the clouded leopard is a much more unusual type of cat than has previously been recognised.

Saber-toothed cats were characterised by a great number of skull features besides large upper canines. Most of these were a result of them having to attain an enormous gape, around 100 degrees, in order for the huge fangs to clear enough room for prey to be bitten, often through the neck, severing the jugular and nerve bundles, and causing the prey to instantly collapse. This was a very different hunting technique from living big cats, which use a throat or muzzle grip to suffocate the prey.

For more information, please see the Journal of Morphology 267: 1186-1198 (2006)