THE USEFULNESS OF ARBOREAL LOCOMOTION FOR CLOUDED LEOPARDS
An image of the habitat of the clouded leopard in Borneo. Copyright WWF, 2015.
Arboreality has been closely linked to reducing extrinsic mortality, delaying senescence, and increasing longevity in arboreal mammals. It is thought that arboreality provides a relative protected environment with reduced exposure to predation, disease, and environmental hazards (Shattuck & Williams 2010). The clouded leopard has developed many specializations in order to survive in its environment; it is one of the few big cats that is arboreal, which raises the question why this animal evolved this type locomotion when its close relatives do not rely on it so heavily.
One potential explanation for this cat’s adaptation to life in trees is the presence of potential predators in its surrounding environment. The clouded leopard inhabits areas that are inhabited by both smaller cats, such as the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis, and larger cats such as the leopard Panthera pardus in its range in Thailand (Lynam et al. 2013). This sympatry results in resource partitioning, which causes differential niche occupation. Moreover, it has been hypothesized that clouded leopard terrestrial activity is higher at night-time due to the avoidance of leopards but that during daytime they are more active on trees. Activity patterns of prey species also preferred by leopards may also influence clouded leopard activity (Lynam et al. 2013).
Arboreal mammals, in general, tend to exhibit generally more curved claws, longer proximal phalanges, and shorter metatarsals than do terrestrial taxa (Van Valkenburgh 1987). These anatomical features: stocky body, incredibly long tail, and crouched fore- and hindlimb posture allow the clouded leopard to excel in arboreal locomotion. Thus, by adapting to an arboreal environment, the clouded leopard increases its lifetime longevity (compared to other cats) as it avoids predators and humans, is a more effective hunter, decreases its likelihood of disease and camouflages well in the environment.