Leopard Catshark

Leopard catsharks
Leopard catshark. Photo © Doug Perrine

Poroderma pantherinum

This nocturnal catshark is found in the warmer coastal waters off of southern Africa, usually sleeping among the rocky reefs during the day and hunting crustaceans and small body fish at night. It rarely grows longer than 33 inches, from rounded snout and large oval eyes, to asymmetrical caudal (tail) fin. The name comes from its light brown to gray color, covered with a variety of markings, either leopard-like rings and spots or elongated dark spots or dense salt-and-pepper spots. Because of its size and habitat, it is considered harmless to humans.

Order – Orectolobiformes
Family – Scyliorhinidae
Genus – Poroderma
Species – pantherinum

Common Names

English language common names are leopard catshark, barbeled catshark, blackspotted catshark, and leopard cat shark. Other common names include alitán de barbilla (Spanish), alitán leopardo (Spanish), leopardrødhaj (Danish), luiperd-kathaai (Afrikaans), panterkathaai (Dutch), roussette barbichette (French), roussette panthère (French), skægget rødhaj (Danish), and swartkol-kathaai (Afrikaans).

Importance to Humans

Leopard catsharks are considered harmless to humans. Photo © Doug Perrine
Leopard catsharks are considered harmless to humans. Photo © Doug Perrine

Although the leopard catshark is of no importance to commercial fisheries, it is commonly taken by bottom trawlers as well as by shore and boat anglers. This species is often displayed at public aquaria due to its striking coloration as well as its adaptability to living in captivity.

Danger to Humans

Due to its small size and feeding habits, the leopard catshark is considered harmless to humans.


The leopard catshark is not listed as endangered or vulnerable with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.

> Check the status of the leopard catshark at the IUCN website.

Geographical Distribution

World distribution map for the leopard catshark
World distribution map for the leopard catshark

The leopard catshark is endemic to the southeastern Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Saldanaha to central Natal, South Africa.


Living near or on the bottom substrate within warm temperate waters, the leopard catshark prefers rocky reef habitats from the intertidal zone to depths of 840 feet (256m). It is a nocturnal shark, meaning it is most active during the night-time hours.


Leopard catshark. Photo © Doug Perrine
Leopard catshark. Photo © Doug Perrine

Distinctive Features
This catshark has a stocky and compressed body, tapering considerably to the caudal fin. The barbels of the anterior nasal flaps are quite long, usually reaching the mouth. The dorsal fins are positioned posteriorly on the leopard catshark. The second dorsal fin is much smaller than the first dorsal fin. The origin of the anal fin is well behind the pelvic fin bases; the caudal fin is short and broad.

The most striking thing about this shark is its leopard-like coloration which gives rise to its common name. The highly variable coloration pattern consists of black spots, rings, and lines arranged in horizontal rows on a grey to pale background. The ventral surface of the leopard shark is white.

Leopard catsharks have striking coloration patterns. Photo © Doug Perrine
Leopard catsharks have striking coloration patterns. Photo © Doug Perrine

Three different forms of coloration exist within this species. The typical “panterinium” coloration consists of lines and rings of spots. In contrast, the two extreme coloration forms consist of the “marleyi” coloration that has large dark spots and was at one time considered an entirely separate species; and the “salt and pepper” coloration that has densely spaced black spots. In addition, intermediates between these two extreme coloration patterns are very common.

The denticles of the leopard shark are well calcified.

Size, Age & Growth
The maximum reported length for a male leopard catshark is 33.4 inches (84.9 cm) total length (TL); the maximum reported length for a female of this species is 28.7 inches (73.0 cm) TL. Males reach sexual maturity at lengths of 21.3-23.2 inches (54-59 cm) while females mature at lengths of 22.8-24.0 inches (58-61 cm).

Food Habits
The leopard catshark feeds on small bony fishes, crustaceans, octopi, and polychaete worms.

The leopard catshark is an oviparous species meaning that females release egg cases that contain embryos into the environment. The embryo continues to develop until it hatches from the egg case and becomes a free-swimming juvenile.

The sevengill shark, Notorynchus cepedianus, is a documented predator of the leopard catshark. Other potential predators include large fish such as sharks as well as marine mammals.

Parasites of the leopard catshark include larval copepods (Gnathia pantherina sp. n.) collected from the gills, nares, and bucchal cavity of a single specimen.


The leopard catshark was originally described and named Scyllium pantherium by Müller & Henle in 1838. This name was later changed to the currently valid Poroderma pantherinum (Müller & Henle 1838). Synonyms include Scyllium variegatum Müller & Henle 1838, Scyllium maeandrinum Müller & Henle 1838, Poroderma variegatum Müller & Henle 1838, Poroderma submaculatum Smith 1838, and Poroderma marleyi Fowler 1934.

Prepared by: Cathleen Bester