Animals all over the world are known to exhibit unnatural behaviors in a typical zoo environment. The pairings which very little off chance of happening in the wild or a natural environment can surely be imagined happening in a zoo. One such pairing is between a lioness and a leopard. In the wild, they both use different mating techniques and would be unlikely to find themselves in a position of compatibility. However, factors change when talking about the same animals in the confined environment of a zoo. They have been successfully bred in captivity to produce a hybrid known as a leopon.
Leopons have been bred in zoos in India, Japan, and Germany. Originally bred for the leopard fur, the hybrid offspring proved to be very sterile. The last of the leopons in India died in 1985, but the British Museum of Natural History still has the leopon skin and skull from an animal bred at the Kolhapur Zoo, India in 1910.
The most successful leopon program was in Nishinomiya City in Japan. Here a lioness named Sonoko was mated to a leopard called Kaneo, both born in 1955 in the Koshien Hanshin Park. The first litter of two leopon cubs was born in 1959 after a gestation period of 97 days. This is an intermediate between the gestation period of a leopard (90 – 95 days) and a lion (105 – 110 days). Usually, in captivity, the big cat males are known to show social behavior and the same happened with Kaneo when he remained with the family after the birth. After this, the couple had three more cubs in 1962.
Leopons are larger in size than leopards and have the combined features of the parents, that is, a lion and a leopard. They have a lion’s stout body while the rest of the appearance resembles a fuzzy leopard with spots and shorter legs. Instead of the classic black spots of a leopard, they have paler brown spots and a reddish-yellow skin. Their tails are tufted like that of a lion while they love to climb trees and play in the water, much like leopards. This distresses the lioness mother as lions are known to hate water. On maturing, the males have a small and sparse mane about 20 centimeters long while the females deal with an internal conflict of having to choose between the solitary lifestyle of a leopard and the social nature of a lioness. Their lifespan is about 20 years, which is more than that of a leopard (12 – 17 years) and that of a lion (10 – 14 years). The lioness mother, leopard father, and leopon offspring were taxidermized and are still on display.
Even though it is very unlikely for such hybrids to occur in a natural state, there still are reports suggesting otherwise. Such a natural hybrid is called a Marozi. As for the case of a reciprocal cross between a male lion and a female leopard, the hybrid is known as a lipard and was last found in Italy.
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