Sabertooth characters in the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa Griffiths 1821)



The clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) is an unusual medium-sized felid whose ecology in the wild is poorly known. Mainly famous for its large canines, it has often been an overlooked taxon in analyses of felid morphology and systematics or has proven aberrant and difficult to interpret. In this article I report on a number of unusual features in the clouded leopard skull hitherto considered characteristic of sabertooth felids exclusively, and, accordingly, universally believed to be absent in extant felids. The skull morphology of the clouded leopard sets it apart from other extant felids, and in a number of respects it approaches the morphology of primitive sabertooths. This indicates convergence of several characters in machairodontine felids and the clouded leopard, mainly as adaptations for attaining a large gape. This raises doubts about the characters hitherto considered as distinguishing sabertoothed from nonsabertoothed predators, and since no evidence at present suggests a different functional killing and feeding ecology in Neofelis, regardless of its unusual skull morphology, also whether primitive sabertoothed felids were functionally similar to advanced forms such as Homotherium, Megantereon, or Smilodon. J. Morphol. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.