As humans, we’re told to not play with our food. But unlike us, big cats don’t have this restriction.
Last month, a ranger at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa’s Kruger National Park filmed an unusual video of a leopard playing with its food. As the male leopard in the video devours a freshly killed warthog, he sorts out the prey’s bloody jawbone and uses it to pick at the meat.
In a blog post, photographic guide James Tyrrell writes that the leopard appears to be using the jawbone as a low-tech tool to loosen, cut, or otherwise open up the carcass. After talking with the rest of the reserve’s guides and tracking team, Tyrell notes that no one in the game reserve had ever witnessed eating behavior like this before. (Watch: “How This Dog Mom Protects a Leopard Cub From Cannibalism”)
“I don’t think anyone would suggest that [the leopard is] about to compete with a chimpanzee for top honors in the problem-solving department,” Tyrrell writes, “but behavior like this is still remarkable.”
A Handy Leopard?
The behavior seems unusual, but others are not convinced the leopard is exhibiting tool use. Luke Hunter, chief conservation officer at the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, says he’s never seen a leopard comb through meat with a bone. (Related: “How City-Dwelling Leopards Improve Human Health”)
“There’s no doubt it’s unusual, but … there’s no real purpose for the ‘tool,’” Hunter says, noting that the leopard had already opened up the carcass before picking at it with the jaw. “There’s no problem here to solve.”
Other animals have demonstrated tool use, but it hasn’t definitively been seen in big cats. Some new world monkeys pound nuts open with rocks, and apes have been known to use sticks to pry insects or pebbles from the ground. Many types of birds use insects and berries for “bait fishing,” where they’ll float the objects on water and snatch up fish that are drawn to them.
Rather, Hunter says the leopard in the video is more likely getting excited about its meal, and seems to be pulling out the jawbone and wielding it in a ludic manner. In other words, he’s playing with his food. (Related: “Why You’re Probably Training Your Cat All Wrong”)
“I think there’s more some aspect of play behavior here,” Hunter says.
In addition to leopards, cheetahs and lions have also been observed using inanimate objects in play. They’re curious, playful animals, and Hunter says littermates will sometimes pick up sticks—or even elephant dung—and chase each other around with it in a feline game of tag. Some big cats will also play with their littermates by batting each other’s tails.
Like other cats, leopards have also been seen playing with live prey before making a kill. Experts say house cats rough up small rodents like mice and rats to practice hunting and protect themselves from injury. It’s a technique of survival rather than tool use.