There are few predators more determined – or acrobatically inclined – than a leopard on the hunt. If its prey scales a tree, the cat is sure to follow … even if it means a death-defying leap across the branches.

Game ranger Jenni Chin and lodge manager Stephen Smit spotted this gravity-defying leopard while driving through South Africa's Ngala Private Game Reserve back in 2015. When Chin and Smit arrived on the scene, the young cat had already honed in on her prey and was staring intently at the upper reaches of a mopane tree.

Determined to nab a squirrelly snack, the leopard clawed her way onto the flimsy branches and succeeded in dislodging her target from its lofty perch. But the squirrel wasn't about to succumb that easily. A go-to snack for cats all over the world, squirrels have learned to master the art of evasion, and after a brief pursuit on the ground, this wily rodent once again retreated to the safety of a nearby tree.

It was on the leopard's second arboreal pursuit that she mistimed a jump and went soaring – limbs flailing – to the dusty road below. Hardly deterred by the fall, she quickly tracked her prey to a hollowed log, where the squirrel made its final, fatal move. A dash for safety sent the rodent scurrying straight into the jaws of its attacker.

"As the leopard proudly sauntered back to the road, she glanced back at the vehicle almost as if to boast and show off her prize before moving off into the thicket," writes the team over at the &Beyond blog.

Leopards usually rely on stealth to catch their prey, but the opportunistic hunters will vary their tactics depending on circumstances. Like most cats, they have few dietary strictures and will scoff down pretty much anything that's edible (even other cats or bloated zebra carcasses).

"Leopards are predators that do not specialise on any one prey," explains Laurel E.K. Serieys, carnivore biologist and coordinator for the Urban Caracal Project in Cape Town, South Africa. "As generalist predators, [leopards] are also opportunistic predators – when they see an opportunity for a meal and they are hungry, they may pursue it."

While the spotted cats are certainly the feline benchmarks for arboreal agility, gravity does sometimes get in the way. Earlier this year, a leopard in South Africa's Londolozi Game Reserve was caught on camera losing his footing while trying to hoist a kill into the boughs of a marula tree. The cat was not hurt (barring a bruised ego, perhaps).

Even more surprising was the case of a leopard "misstep" recorded in the Himalayas this June. A snow leopard – a cat so secretive and well adapted to its environment that simply catching a glimpse of one is an incredible feat – was filmed taking an almighty tumble down a cliff face. Seemingly unscathed, the leopard walked away; however, it's unclear whether it suffered any lingering injuries from the fall.

Either way, it seems the old wisdom is at least partly true: cats always land on their feet.



Top header image: Jessica Shippee/Flickr