How the Leopard Got So Supple: A Brief History of a Species That’s Been Around For More Than 50 Million Years
The first evidence of mammals evolving into something other than their ancestral form was found in the fossil record. These fossils are called “Lepidodonts” because they were small, furry mammals with long legs and four limbs.
They lived during the Miocene period (about 55 million years ago). There are many different types of these animals, but one type that stands out is the knuckle-walking tree shrew.
In fact, there have been several theories about how these creatures got so flexible. One theory suggests that it may have had to do with changes in the way their bodies were built up over time.
Another possibility is that they developed some sort of genetic mutation or adaptation to better handle the stresses of climbing trees and branches. Still another idea is that they evolved from a simpler animal with less flexibility, like a lizard or snake.
Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that these creatures did not evolve naturally. Rather, they must have had help along the way.
If they didn’t get any assistance at all, then it would seem strange if their bodies could change without them having to adapt in some way.
How the Leopard Got Its Spots
The leopard has a long and fascinating history. It came into being in a similar way to how the tree-shrew evolved, but it took millions of years for it to happen.
The first real examples of big cats come from the middle of the Miocene era, about 13 million years ago.
Even at this time, the big cat was already similar to the creature we recognize today. It had long legs with powerful muscles, a long tail, and a body covered in fur.
Their teeth were also especially sharp, which is important for hunting prey.
They could probably run down their prey and use their size to overpower smaller meals, but their bodies weren’t quite right for catching and killing the really large animals they hunted. It wasn’t until the leopard’s next period of evolution that the big change would come.
During the Pliocene period (5 million to 1.6 million years ago), the Earth started to change very quickly.
Continental shifts meant open landscapes turned into dense jungles, and grassy plains turned into deserts. These changes had a huge effect on the way animals looked and behaved. Some species adapted, others died out.
The leopard was one of the animals that experienced major changes during this period. They grew longer legs that allowed them to sprint after prey and pounce from trees.
Their tails lengthened and they developed the ability to use them as a fifth limb while they were running. The change in diet apparently had an effect on their teeth as well, because their canines grew significantly longer than their other teeth.
These changes made the leopard a much more effective predator that could chase down almost any animal. In fact, if it weren’t for humans, leopards probably would have been able to live everywhere on Earth.
Unfortunately, humans hunted them for their furs and sport until leopards were extinct almost everywhere but Africa.
So why is this process called convergent evolution?
Well, the environment changed drastically over the course of millions of years, but two unrelated species still managed to come up with the same adaptations to survive. Even though they became more similar because they were exposed to the same pressures, they started off different.
This is just one example of convergent evolution. When it happens between humans and animals, it’s known as parallel evolution.
It’s strange and fascinating all at the same time.
The next time you see a leopard, look at its spots and think about how millions of years ago they didn’t exist and now they’re a crucial part of its survival. The next time you’re walking down the street, look at people and wonder if one day we’ll all be replaced by androids.
The future is a strange and amazing place filled with convergent evolution.
Sources & references used in this article:
Becoming a supple leopard 2nd edition: The ultimate guide to resolving pain, preventing injury, and optimizing athletic performance by K Starrett, G Cordoza – 2015 – books.google.com
A critique of the typology of states and political systems by A So’uﬂmll – Political systems and the distribution of power, 2004 – books.google.com
Video night in Kathmandu: and other reports from the not-so-far East by S Mills – 2004 – Firefly Books
Comparative Analysis of Paw Pad Structure in the Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and Domestic Cat (Felis catus) by H Loxton – 1973 – Triune Books