Field Note: Wishful Thinking - Leopards of the Olare Oruk River
Published: October 24, 2022
By Mark Seth Lender
A young leopard sighted in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)
Young leopards have a lot to learn. In the Maasai Mara, on the banks of the Olare Oruk River, Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender followed one such Young leopard progress along the learning curve.
Among the great cats of my experience the young adults of Panthera pardus, the African leopard, are the most cat-like by which I mean closest in demeanor to Felis catus, he who lies asleep in your favorite chair. This because they have a sense of play including, apparently, the capacity for make-believe. What else is Ms Cat Person doing when you tease her with a feather, but imagining?
As leopards age they become more serious, closer to the stealthy all-business animal we are taught to fear. The leopard of this story was at the cusp. In another six months, a year at the most, his house cat qualities will be gone.
We associate play and the capacity for play with mammals. But then, crows play, ravens play even as adults, parrots (at least those who have been taught to understand and speak a human language) have been known to construct obscenities they were not taught and to see the humor in it. Snakes? Not so much. Nor in my experience elephant seals, even in their first few days of life when that have that baby-faced aspect that draws us to them. What holds in common between old ravens and young leopards? Intelligence? Perhaps. And that the leopard at fourteen or maybe sixteen months still has a lot to learn, while the raven being a problem solver goes on learning throughout life.
None of which predicts a capacity for play.
Herring gulls who have a wealth of knowledge and technique that takes some time to acquire nevertheless retain their plasticity. They are also unparalleled problem solvers, and the smartest of them are considerably more intelligent than the smartest dog you will ever meet or own. They have highly individualized personalities and a complex language. Their face recognition is superb, both among themselves and in regard to individual human beings. But though I have spent more field time with herring gulls than any other wild animal, I have never seen a herring gull engage in frivolous behavior of any kind, much less display a sense of humor.
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