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Video cameras provide first documentation of Sunda clouded leopard communication behaviors

Post submitted by Max Allen – University of Wisconsin, Madison

Sunda clouded leopards (Neofelis diardi) are a threatened species that is shrouded in mystery. Most solitary felids are renowned for being mysterious and difficult to see, but Sunda clouded leopards take this to an extreme. It is for this reason that little is known about their ecology, prey, or habits. In fact, although radio-tracking collars are a staple of modern wildlife research, there has never been a study published using collars on Sunda clouded leopards. They are part of the Panthera lineage of felids that includes African lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars, and considering the amount of research that goes into these other species, the lack of research on Sunda clouded leopards is surprising. Even as recently as five years ago, Sunda clouded leopards were lumped as one species with clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa).

A major area of my scientific research is how animals communicate, including scent marking, and naturally it was an area of research that intrigued me about Sunda clouded leopards. Not surprisingly, very little is known about this behavior. In fact, a study by Alan Rabinowitz et al. (1987) concluded that:

There was no evidence in this study, nor in the survey by Davies and Payne (1982), to indicate marking behavior by clouded leopards in the form of scrapes and/or obvious faecal deposits along roads or trails where the cats were known to travel. In areas with small or isolated populations cats may simple be able to avoid each other without advertising their presence through behaviour such as marking (Schaller and Cranshaw 1980). This may be the case with the clouded leopard in Borneo.”

This surprised and intrigued me. Is it possible that a solitary felid species forgoes all communication or communicates by a method other than scent marking? Studies of communication exist for 29 of the 39 felid species, and each of the studies mentions scent marking as a primary form of indirect communication.

In contemplation of this question I teamed up with Andy Marshall and his long-term wildlife population ecology project in Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Andy and his collaborators Heiko Wittmer, Endro Setiawan have been running this project since 2000, and have been doing continuous monitoring of wildlife since 2007. The aims of the project are to explore how changes in climate and the productivity of different habitats affect the spatial and temporal variation of wildlife populations. Sunda clouded leopards are one of the largest carnivores in the area, and are therefore a species of interest for the project.

A map of our study area highlighting our camera placement and habitat types.
A map of our study area highlighting our camera placement and habitat types.

In order to try and determine if Sunda clouded leopards use scent marking, we used motion-triggered video cameras. I prefer to use motion-triggered cameras for research when possible, because the method is non-invasive and animals are not harmed in any way. The added benefit for this project is that the cameras do not influence the behavior of animals, and we can therefore get an accurate view of their natural behaviors. We set the 28 cameras across the study area, with 4 cameras in each of the 7 major habitat types (see map below).

We used the cameras over the course of 9 months, and I was astounded by what we found (see http://www.nature.com/articles/srep35433 for full report). We found that Sunda clouded leopards use a large diversity of communication and scent marking behaviors. We documented 10 different behaviors, including: scraping, urine spraying, claw marking, cheek rubbing, olfaction, and vocalizations. Other felids use each of these behaviors, but very few use so many.

A male Sunda clouded leopard scent marking through scraping.

These findings close an important gap in our understanding of how felids communicate by showing that all felids are likely to use scent marking to communicate. Our study also shows that there is a notable similarity in the form and function of scent marking behaviors used by felids. At the same time it opens up new research questions. For example, why do some species vary in the forms of scent marking they use? Is this based on the habitat (i.e. jungle, forest, desert) in which they are found? Or what else drives the adaptive selection of the scent marking behavior in these species over time?

A Sunda clouded leopard exhibiting olfaction and flehmen response.

Our findings were not just limited to scent marking. We documented Sunda clouded leopards at 47% of our cameras, with their visitation rates being highest in montane, upland granite, and lowland granite habitats. We also used the unique spot patterns on their coat to tell individuals apart, documenting a minimum of 9 individuals (6 males and 3 females), and 3 videos of a mother traveling with grown cubs. This method also allowed us to determine visitation rates, as well as glean some insights into the social organization of Sunda clouded leopards. Specifically, as with many felids, males tended to overlap in their use of space, while females did not.

An example of how we distinguished between individual Sunda clouded leopards based on their unique spot patterns. The top and bottom photographs show the same male, while the middle photograph shows a different individual male.
An example of how we distinguished between individual Sunda clouded leopards
based on their unique spot patterns. The top and bottom photographs show the
same male, while the middle photograph shows a different individual male.

Our findings in this study are just the beginning. We documented behaviors, such as vocalizations, that we have not yet begun to interpret. Keep up to date with my research as I explore these and other questions at https://www.facebook.com/thewildlives. I would like to express many thanks to my collaborators on this project, and as a group we would like to thank the State Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education (KEMENRISTEKDIKTI), the Directorate of Natural Resources and Ecosystems (KSDAE), and the Gunung Palung National Park Bureau (BTNGP).

The first known video of a Sunda clouded leopard vocalization.

References:

Allen, M. L., H. U. Wittmer, E. Setiawan, S. Jaffe, and A. J. Marshall. 2016. Scent marking in Sunda clouded leopards (Neofelis diardi): novel observations close a key gap in understanding felid communication behaviours. Scientific Reports 6: 35433.

Davies, A. G., and J. B. Payne. 1982. A faunal survey of Sabah. World Wildlife Fund Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

Rabinowitz, A., P. Andau, and P. P. Chai. 1987. The clouded leopard in Malaysian Borneo. Oryx 22: 107–111.

Schaller, G., and P. G. Cranshaw. 1980. Movement patterns of jaguar. Biotropica 12: 161-168.