Hear the word “leopon” and you may think it’s a type of Pokémon. It’s a real animal that exists on planet Earth. It’s a crossed-bred big cat. Think of mules (mixes of donkeys and horses) or dog breeds (cockapoos, goldendoodles, etc.). Another group of four-legged friends whose genetics can get crossed, members of the genus Panthera can produce a whole new slew of furry predators, the leopon included.
1. A leopon is a mix of half-lion, half-leopard.
It’s made by the mating of a female lion (lioness) and a male leopard. The term is sometimes truncated to just “lepon.” The converse (male lion and female leopard, or leopardess) produces a lipard, though it can also be referred to as a reverse leopon.
2. A leopon has a head of a lion and a body of leopard.
You can’t breed a leopard (with any partner) and not get spots. Leopons are as spectacularly spotted as their leopard dads. While their spots are distinct, leopons’ spots aren’t as dark as pure leopards’ spots, tending towards hues of brown rather than pure black. The base color of their coat is pale like their mom’s, varying from red to yellow tones. The males eventually grow a mane, albeit a small one compared to their lion ancestors, and don’t have the tell-tale tuft of hair at the end of their tail.
Leopons’ bodies are as large as lions, but with legs short like leopards. They can end up growing up to be larger than their full-grown leopard father.
The gestation period (the length of time the mother is pregnant) for a leopon litter is an average of both species: 97 days. For lions it’s 105 days and leopards 90.
Weirdly, their lifespan seems to exceed that of both its parents’ species. On average, leopards max out at 23 years and lions at only 13. The Japanese leopons lived for more than 20 years!
3. The earliest reference to the leopon was made by none other than Pliny the Elder, famous Roman author and naturalist from the 1st century.
In a chapter devoted to lions he writes, “This is also the reason why so many curious varieties of animals are produced [in Africa], the males and females of various species coupling promiscuously with each other.” This being concrete evidence of leopons is debatable, though. It appears Pliny referred to “pards” as male panthers and thought they mated with lions to produce leopards, while in reality the latter has always been considered its own species. His vague language does allow for the possibility of leopons, though.
4. Carl Hagenbeck, credited with creating the modern zoo as we know it, allegedly bred leopons early in the 20th century,
But they did not survive infancy. No evidence remains.
5. 1910 saw the first (reliably) written record of a leopon.
It came out of India, where the Secretary of the Bombay Natural History Society, W.S. Millard, came across the animal. Two cubs were born in a litter, one of which died. Millard sent its pelt to his friend in London who studied it and made note of its mixed markings.
In Japan, scientists in the 1950s and ‘60s crossbred some well-known leopons in Nishinomiya. The big cats born at Koshien Hanshin Park were unique at this time, when other scientists were more interested in lion-tiger (liger) crossbreeding. Sonoko and Kaneo (lioness and leopard, respectively) grew up together and had their first litter of two cubs in 1959 and another in 1962. The second one produced one male and two female cubs. This program is arguably the most successful, having contributed the most data on leopons to date. Their research was popular with the public though debate waged in the scientific and humanitarian world. Leopons have not been bred in Japan since the offspring of Sonoko and Kaneo died in the ‘80s.
6. Leopons haven’t been bred for any specific reason. Other than scientific research, they’ve been bred because they can be.
While the breeding of leopons so far hasn’t made any groundbreaking discoveries, cross-breeding of other species could help scientists learn more about the natural world. In some instances, it could help us revive endangered species.
7. It’s generally accepted that leopons are a dead end.
In the Japanese trial, all the leopons produced were sterile and none successfully reproduced. Outside their program, no leopons on record grew to adolescence, let alone maturity.
There don’t seem to be any reports of leopons in captivity today. The peak in their breeding seems to have crashed and burned, more than likely due to ethical concerns over forcing two disparate species to mate and creating dead-end offspring. We never know what exists in the wild, but hopes aren’t high for wild leopons.
8. It is generally accepted as highly improbable that leopons would not occur naturally.
In the wild, lions and leopards can live close to each other, but they’d be unlikely to cross-mate of their own volition. The main reason for this is because lionesses are considerably larger than male leopards. Lionesses weigh an average of 273 pounds while male leopards weigh an average of only 181 pounds! The leopons that have been recorded and researched reliably have all only ever been bred in captivity and with the intent of creating a leopon.
Stories do abound, as with any rare subject. Several central African countries all have stories of seeing “marozis” in the wild. A marozi is an undefined mix of two big cats, a “spotted lion.” In 1931, a big game hunter shot and killed a marozi. Evidence of its existence is maintained by its pelt which is displayed in the British Museum of Natural History, though researchers aren’t clear on which species of big cats were the parents.
9. Leopons vs Lipards
As mentioned, a lipard is a cross between a male lion and a female leopard (leopardess). This cross is especially rare because of the size difference between the two.
One born in the ‘80s was the offspring of a male lion named Puff, weighing over 550 pounds, and female leopard named Miccia, weighing only 83 pounds. At the time, the International Zoo News (a British publication) officially termed this resulting offspring as a “leonard,” not a lipard. These big cats were the private pets of Mr. Franco Stenta, an Italian animal breeder who kept them at his paper mill. The size difference is shocking, but this mating was apparently natural, the male going in to copulate with the female without any prodding on Mr Stenta’s part. He didn’t even know Miccia was pregnant until the cub was born! It was noted that the cub had the body of a lion but of leopard proportions; the coloring of a lion with the leopard’s spots; and blue eyes a receding forehead like a leopard. The cub was sold off when it was still young and Miccia became pregnant a second time with Puff’s offspring, but there doesn’t seem to be any follow-up news as to how (or if) their lipard babies grew up.
10. It’s not just the physical characteristics of the big cats that get crossed in their mixed-species offspring.
Their idiosyncrasies get blended, too. While leopards are known to be solitary creature who like to climb and enjoy swimming, lions live in prides, can’t climb well, and hate the water. Their mixed offspring seem to be a blend of both: leopons are keen climbers and swimmers who also lead sociable lives.
Cross-breeding is a curious practice. Sometimes it has powerful results that add to the vast array of fauna on planet Earth. Sometimes it teaches us things without any lasting effect. Leopons seem to fall in the latter category. Knowing that big cat species can interbreed is hopeful information that could be used in conservation efforts for endangered species. In the meantime, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any leopons being bred.