The beautiful leopard catshark (Poroderma pantherinum) is also endemic to southern Africa and has been found as far east as Madagascar. Unlike the pyjama catshark, the leopards have a long barbel protruding from each nasal flap, which usually reach its mouth and are a distinguishing feature of this species.
Deriving their name from the highly variable leopard-like pattern of spots and lines they have adorning their skin, these sharks are alluring to say the least. Interestingly there are three different colour morphs within the species which vary in density of the spot pattern, with the panterinium variation (pictured above) being the most common, and the marleyi and salt and pepper morphs being rarer.
You can find these beauties in temperate inshore habitats like rocky reefs and kelp forests where they are often lurking around at depths of 20 metres – despite this, leopard catsharks have been recorded at depths of 256 metres in the Western Indian Ocean. Whilst they are lethargic during the day, at nighttime these nocturnal predators become more active and hunt for their prey items of choice – small bony fish, crustaceans, octopuses and even, bristle worms.
They reach a maximum size of approximately 84cm in length, with males reaching sexual maturity at around 54cm and females reaching sexual maturity at lengths of 58-61cm. Like all catsharks, the leopard catshark reproduces via oviparous reproduction with the females laying two eggcases – also colloquially known as ‘mermaids purses’ – together each time.
In terms of threats to these sharks, leopard catsharks are not commercially fished; however, they are commonly caught as bycatch by bottom trawlers and are a target of recreational boat and shore fishers. Let’s not forget either the looming risk of climate change and the vulnerability of fragile marine ecosystems, like the magical kelp forests these leopard catsharks call home, in the face of a changing environment. Recently the IUCN Red List status of the leopard catshark was updated to ‘Least Concern’ as research indicates that their population is increasing throughout their described range.
Not dissimilar from the pyjama shark, there is still a lot for us to learn about these majestic mesopelagic predators. In a world where our focus is so often on charismatic megafauna like great white sharks and whale sharks there is no time like the present to shift our attention to the smaller species of the shark world, which are no less important than their giant relatives.