New Species of Leopards

Genie Leung
23 January 2012

It's not everyday that you discover a new species. Let alone one that has been right under your nose for almost 200 years.

Scientists have discovered that what they thought was a subspecies of the 'clouded leopard', is in fact a brand new species of cat altogether.

Clouded leopards (which, contrary to their name, aren't leopards at all!) get their name from the cloud-like patterns on their fur. In adulthood, they can grow up to 4 feet in length, with a tail just as long as its body!

Did You Know?
Clouded leopards are amazing tree climbers! Their long tail helps them keep their balance. Clouded leopards were first described in the early 1800s. They live in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and India, and the nearby Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Being the biggest predators of Borneo, their carnivorous diet includes birds, monkeys, deer, and pigs.

Did You Know?
When compared to their body size, the clouded leopards have the longest teeth of any living cat —up to two inches long! The only cat to beat this record was the Smilodon saber-tooth tiger that lived over 10 000 years ago. The 5 foot long Smilodon had teeth that were up to 10 inches long! Until last year, the clouded leopard species was thought to encompass four subspecies: three on the mainland and one in Borneo and Sumatra. Scientists now believe that the three subspecies from the mainland belong to one species of clouded leopard, while the cats on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra are a new species on its own.

How did they figure that out? By comparing both fur patterns and genetic information.

Scientists studying the cloud patterns on the fur discovered that there are in fact two distinct populations. Clouded leopards on the mainland are light brown, and have large rectangular clouds containing light spots. On the other hand, clouded leopards from the islands are grey, and have smaller, irregular shaped clouds containing many dark spots.

Another group of scientists supported these observations with genetic analyses demonstrating that the clouded leopards of Borneo and Sumatra are as different from the mainland population as lions are from tigers!

Did You Know?
Borneo is an island exceptionally rich in biodiversity: 52 new species of fish, frogs, and plants were discovered last year, and over 400 new species and plants and animals have been discovered since 1994. So what genetic information did the scientists look at? As you know, each cell contains a nucleus - the compartment that houses the majority of the genetic information in the form of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sequences. These long chains of DNA have characteristic 'marker sequences', known as microsatellites, that can be used to distinguish different species from one another.

But did you know that the nucleus is not the only place you can find DNA? A small fraction of a cell's total genetic information can be also found in the mitochondria (for a human cell, less than 0.0006% of its genetic information is found there!). Mitochondria are small organelles that are responsible for the conversion of sugars, proteins, and fats from foods, into a form of energy that the cell can use.

It was through looking at the DNA from the nucleus and the mitochondria that scientists were able to show specific differences in the genetic sequences of the Borneo and Sumatran leopards that confirmed they were indeed two different species!

Did You Know?
According to one theory, mitochondria are the descendants of ancient bacteria that were 'swallowed' up by larger cells, and in time the two learned to live together! The Borneo and Sumatran species of clouded leopards are believed to have separated from the mainland species by geographical separation almost 1 and a half million years ago.

Today, clouded leopards are constantly threatened by deforestation and hunting. They are classified as a 'vulnerable' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural resources (IUCN), and the World Wildlife Federation estimates that there are only 10,000 animals in the wild.

Learn more!

'Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinctions in Clouded Leopards' V.A. Buckley-Beason et al. Current Biology. 16, 2371-2376. 2006

'Geographical Variation in the Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, Reveals Two Species'. A.C. Kitchener et al. Current Biology. 16, 2377-2383. 2006

Clouded leopard project resources page. Click Here

World Wildlife Federation: Clouded leopard information, video, and press release.

Scientists find dozens of new species in Borneo rainforests:

IUCN Red list of threatened species

saber-toothed tigers: Hooper Museum

DNA analysis: Click Here

Mitochondria and nucleus: Wikipedia

Genie has a Ph.D. in medical genetics and protein biochemistry from the University of Toronto, and currently works for a breast cancer research group. When not in the lab, she spends her spare time cooking exotic cuisine and camping on the Bruce peninsula.

Genie Leung

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