A leopard can't change its spots, but apparently it can change its color.
African leopards normally have tawny coats with black spots. But a male leopard with a strawberry-colored coat has been spotted in South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve (map), conservationists announced this week.
Tourists in the reserve had occasionally seen the unusual animal. But it wasn't until recently that photographer and safari guide Deon De Villiers sent a photograph to experts at Panthera, a U.S.-based wild cat-conservation group, to ask them about the leopard's odd coloration.
Panthera President Luke Hunter suspects the pale leopard has erythrism, a little-understood genetic condition that's thought to cause either an overproduction of red pigments or an underproduction of dark pigments.
"It's really rare—I don't know of another credible example in leopards," said Hunter, whose group collaborates with National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. (The Society owns National Geographic News.)
Hunter added, "it's surprising that [a photo of the leopard] didn't come out sooner, because he's relatively used to vehicles."
Strawberry Leopard Still Successful
"There are some spotted leopard skins and melanistic specimens—black panthers—in museums with red undertones, but fading probably contributes to that," he said.
Melanism is an unusual development of black or nearly black color in an animal's skin, fur, or plumage. (See video: "Mutant All-Black Penguin Found.")
The strawberry leopard seems healthy and likely suffers no ill consequences from his pinkish hue, Hunter said: "He's obviously a successful animal."
For instance, the leopard's coat still offers him some camouflage—leopards rely on their spotted fur to sneak up on prey and ambush them from as close as 13 feet (4 meters) away. (See big-cat pictures.)
More worrisome for the strawberry leopard are the game farms that surround the Madikwe reserve, Hunter said.
If the animal were to leave the reserve, he'd lose the strict protection offered by Madikwe and become fair game for legal trophy hunting, Hunter said.
"It's the fate of a lot of leopards."