Black leopards may owe thanks to a team of scientists at Australia’s James Cook University. The rare leopards, an endangered species living on the Malay Peninsula, have been hard to identify because each one appeared the same—until now. The researchers discovered that the big cats actually have complex designs of spotting when viewed through an infrared flash, according to a press release. "Most automatic cameras have an infrared flash, but it's only activated at night," says a researcher on the project. "However, by blocking the camera's light sensor, we can fool the camera into thinking it's night even during the day, so it always flashes." The spots make it easier for humans to identify and track black leopards, which should save more leopard lives.
"Understanding how leopards are faring in an increasingly human-dominated world is vital," says lead author Laurie Hedges. Few leopards actually live on the Malay Peninsula, perhaps due to poaching, while wire snares are killing them and wildlife markets are selling leopard body parts and skins. The rapid elimination of Malaysian forests is also depriving leopards of suitable habitats. The black panther—or leopard in Asia and Africa—has long had a "mythical aura" dating back to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and Stan Lee's creation of the Black Panther superhero, Mongabay.com reports. Another neat fact: The black leopard is "perhaps the only known example of a wild mammal with virtually an entire population composed of black individuals," says Hedges. (See how "sexed-up bachelor birds" could save their species.)