Big Cats With Spots

I am deeply peeved when people who ought to know better confuse leopards and cheetahs. If you’re unfamiliar with big cats, that’s different; it’s confusing. They’re both big and they both have spots. What’s the difference?


Let’s start with body build. Cheetahs are highly evolved for speed and maneuverability. They’re tall and slender. They have small heads like greyhounds.

Leopards, however, are short and stocky. They don’t run far but they pounce hard, and they need a ton of muscle to lift their prey into trees.

Look at these two photos of big cats. Note how stumpy the second one’s legs appear, and how much bigger its head is in comparison to the first. We can’t tell anything about their spot patterns, but still we can see that the first is a cheetah and the second is a leopard purely from their respective body shapes.

What about those spots that they have in common? If you look closely, you’ll notice that their spots are totally different. Cheetahs have plain black spots. Leopards have rosettes: clusters of spots. You can see the difference clearly in these two images below:

A cheetah in the Grumeti Game Reserve of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, Tanzania.
A male leopard caught in a camera-trap in the Tsauchab riverbed of the Neuras Wine & Wildlife Estate, Nambia.

See how much bigger and multicolored the leopards “spots” are? Especially along the back, the spots are clustered (less so on the shoulders and forelegs).

Finally, if you look at the previous cheetah’s face, you’ll notice its distinctive “tear marks,” black lines that run from the cheetah’s eyes down to the whiskers. The leopard photo above shows that they have nothing similar.

So now you know; not all big cats with spots are the same.