A truly unique find — a “strawberry” spotted leopard — was photographed on a camera trap in South Africa’s Thabo Tholo Wilderness Area recently.
The big cat’s reddish coloring is extremely uncommon; “This is one of the rarest color variations in the world,” wrote the Black Leopard Mountain Lodge. Lodge owners Alan Watson and his wife Lynsey had set up the camera trap near a giraffe that had been killed in a lightning storm. Not expecting anything out of the ordinary, they were understandably stunned when they scrolled through the images to find the unique feline dining on the carcass. “We were shocked when we went through the camera trap footage… Over the last few months we have caught this female leopard on a few of our camera traps,” they said on a Facebook post.
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The unusual hue is the result of a genetic mutation called erythrism. Caused by a recessive gene that affects pigment production just like albinism, the animal’s normal pigment is replaced by excessive red pigment.
There have been very few sightings of such leopards, the majority of which have been in India. One study conducted in South Africa revealed that 7 percent of leopards in the region displayed the reddish color variation. Authors of the study hypothesized that such findings in the area may be due to local captive breeding programs; Leopards in the region are controversially bred for trophy hunting, and such human interference could have an affect on their genetics. Another possible explanation is that wild populations have been isolated and fragmented due to loss of habitat, forcing smaller populations to breed with one another.