January 24, 2011

Researchers Find Two Clouded Leopard Subspecies

Recent tests have proven a long-held belief that Borneo's Sunda clouded leopard is a different subspecies from its Indonesian relative, according to scientists.

The two subspecies of Sunda leopard -- which was only identified as its own species in 2007 -- must now be managed separately, said a report by Andreas Wilting from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and researchers from the Sabah wildlife and forestry departments.

"The Sunda clouded leopard in Borneo and Sumatra is a different species from clouded leopards across the Asian mainland," Wilting told AFP.

"We suspected the leopards on Borneo and Sumatra have likely been geographically separated since the last Ice Age, and we now know the long isolation has resulted in a split into separate subspecies," he added.

"The potential that they could evolve into full separate species, given that they are separate subspecies, means that captive breeders will now be better informed to keep the subspecies apart to allow them to evolve fully," said Wilting.

Now a genetic analysis has confirmed that the cat exists in two distinct forms, one found in Sumatra, the other in Borneo.

Clouded leopards have proven the most elusive of all large cats, which include lions, tigers, and other leopards, among others. These creatures, living across southeast Asia, have larger cloud-like spots than ordinary leopards.

Until 2006, all clouded leopards were thought to belong to a single species. But the new genetic analysis revealed that there are two unique clouded leopard species. As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland, the researchers determined that another clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Wilting said the molecular analysis, along with skull morphology studies on both fur and bone samples of the leopard from natural history museums worldwide showed the species followed different evolutionary paths.

Researchers believe natural disasters were likely responsible for the split, with only two populations of the leopards in Borneo and southern China surviving the Toba volcanic eruption in Sumatra about 75,000 years ago.

"The ones on Borneo could have decolonized Sumatra via glacial land bridges and subsequently developed into a different subspecies as sea levels rose after the last Ice Age, isolating the two islands," co-author Joerns Fickel told the French news agency.

Wilting said both subspecies are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because the cats only occur in small numbers and require vast home ranges to survive.

In 2010, the team of scientists working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia released the first footage of the cat in the wild to be made public. Led by Wilting, the researchers captured images of a Sunda clouded leopard walking along a road.

Their results of the research are published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.


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