Corner image home
& Research
Studying Clouded Leopards paw
Studying Clouded Leopards

Clouded leopards are studied for two main purposes:
  To create a body of knowledge that contributes to our understanding of clouded leopards.
  To determine conservation strategies to ensure the clouded leopard’s long term survival.

The study of wild clouded leopards is extremely difficult owing to the cat’s elusive nature, its relative rarity, and the challenges of working in the hot, humid climate where it ranges. However, there are a variety of field techniques and tools that help researchers develop a comprehensive picture of their hidden lives and behavior.

Clouded leopards, like other wild cats, are studied in a variety of contexts, each utilizing the research methods most appropriate for gaining the desired information. These methods include field study, laboratory techniques, and data analysis.

Studying Individual Clouded Leopards

Scientists study clouded leopards as individuals to learn about their activity patterns, how they breed and raise young, how they disperse, and how they use the space where they live.

Tools for studying individual clouded leopards include:

  Tracking clouded leopards using footprints, also known as pugmarks.

Because analyzing footprints is a very subjective method, this technique requires a great deal of skill and experience. It also requires ideal soil conditions for the cats to leave prints that are suitable for tracking.

  Capturing in traps and immobilizing with chemicals
Using traps baited with live chickens, researchers sometimes capture clouded leopards. By capturing cats, researchers are able to examine their subjects closely, gaining information on their age, gender, and health status. Samples of blood or tissue may also be taken for laboratory analysis. This process does not harm the clouded leopards and after they revive they are released back into the forest.
  Radio telemetry
During capture, clouded leopards may be fitted with radio telemetry collars that allow researchers to follow their movements and monitor their activity patterns. Cats may be tracked on foot, by car, on elephant-back, or from the air. Data generated from monitoring the clouded leopards’ locations are processed using analytical software, resulting in a comprehensive depiction of the animal’s activities.

New generations of collars are equipped with the capability of transmitting the GPS coordinates of the collared animal to satellites, allowing researchers to download data. However, the thick vegetation of the clouded leopard’s forest habitat has so far prevented this technology from being applied to the study of this species.

Studying Clouded Leopards as Parts of Animal Communities

The study of clouded leopards as members of their animal communities is known as ecology. Looking at clouded leopard ecology can provide researchers with insight into the cat’s predatory behavior, its diet and feeding habits, ratios between clouded leopards and their prey, and the clouded leopard’s choice of habitat.

Tools for studying clouded leopard ecology include:
  Capturing and radio collaring

Tracking clouded leopards through radio telemetry can provide information about the cat’s habitat use and can lead to the remains of prey.
  Fecal analysis

The discovery of clouded leopard feces can provide a wealth of information about the composition of prey that the clouded leopard feeds upon. Prey species may be identified by tooth and bone fragments and bone may be studied to determine the age of prey. The amount of species’ remains in prey allow researchers to estimate the types and abundance of prey upon which the clouded leopard feeds.
  Analyzing remains from kills

On rare occasions, the remains of prey killed by clouded leopards may be found. This technique is strongly biased in favor of large prey as small kills are usually eaten whole or leave remains that are unlikely to be found.

Studying Clouded Leopards as Populations

For conservation purposes, some of the most useful research arises through the study of clouded leopards in terms of their populations instead of as individual animals. This research provides information on the size and density of populations and population dynamics such as survival rates, reproduction, animal movements, and dispersal.

Tools for studying clouded leopard populations include:

  Camera trap surveys and data analysis software

The use of camera trapping has dramatically changed the way scientists study the clouded leopard’s world. Until camera traps became widely used in the 1990s, clouded leopard researchers almost never had the opportunity to glimpse their study subjects. Now, however, images of clouded leopards are commonly obtained.
Camera traps with infra-red or motion sensors are set up along paths frequented by forest wildlife. When a clouded leopard or other animal crosses the beam of the sensor, a photograph is taken.

Researchers can compare photos and identify individual clouded leopards from their markings. Using special computer software, they then analyze the number of “re-captures,” or individuals photographed more than once, to estimate the size of the population in a given area.

Cameras also allow researchers to monitor populations over the long-term to determine how long clouded leopards survive, how frequently new animals join the population, and if transients pass through the area.

  Fecal DNA analysis
Because it is extremely difficult to capture clouded leopards to obtain blood or tissue samples, most genetic information about clouded leopards is obtained through DNA found in fecal samples. Researchers are able to extract DNA from feces found in their study areas. The results will not only tell them if the feces were produced by a clouded leopard, but they can identify individuals through their genetic material as well. In conjunction with camera traps, this research provides a comprehensive picture of clouded leopard population dynamics.

Studying Clouded Leopards Across Landscapes

The study of clouded leopards across landscapes is a broad field that encompasses their past and present distribution, their patterns of habitat use, and their abundance in particular areas or habitats.

Tools for studying clouded leopards across landscapes include:

  Examination of historical records and museum specimens

Records and old specimens may show previous ranges of clouded leopards versus their ranges today (e.g. on the island of Taiwan).
  Field surveys

Broad field surveys using camera trapping or fecal samples are used to determine the presence or absence of clouded leopards in specific areas. This method may be error-prone, however, as cats may be present but not be detected.

All of the information collected through the study of clouded leopards both in the field and in the lab contributes to increasing the body of knowledge about this little-known species. By understanding how clouded leopards use their habitat, what type of prey they need to survive, and how they respond to pressures from people, wildlife managers can determine the best conservation strategies to ensure the long term survival of clouded leopards.