Friday, March 16, 2007
A rare and reclusive leopard that hunts among the dense island forests of Borneo and Sumatra in south-east Asia has been identified as an entirely new species of great cat.
Genetic tests and pelt examinations have revealed that the animal, now called the Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), is as distinct from other clouded leopards that roam mainland Asia as lions are from panthers.
On the islands the clouded leopard is the top predator, preying on monkeys, deer, wild pigs and lizards, and has a crucial influence on the regional ecosystems. At their largest they reach just over 1m long, and for their size sport the largest canine teeth of the cat family. Their name comes from the mottled white patches that cover their skin.
Clouded leopards were first described in 1821 by the British naturalist Edward Griffith, but few of the animals have ever been sighted and from the sparse information available scientists suspected they were either all one species, or possibly divided into four sub-species.
By testing DNA from clouded leopard populations across Asia and the islands, scientists at the US National Cancer Institute in Maryland identified 40 genetic differences between the island cats and those found elsewhere, confirming them as two distinct species whose evolutionary paths divided 1.4m years ago.
"Almost 200 years on we are just beginning to learn about these creatures," said Mark Wright, chief science adviser with the conservation group WWF-UK, which is working to protect the leopard's Borneo habitat from deforestation.
There are estimated to be only 5,000 to 11,000 of the leopards on Borneo and 3,000 to 7,000 on Sumatra. The island species has small cloud markings, a double stripe down its back, and its grey fur is darker than the mainland species. The leopards are extremely agile and can hunt by staging ambushes from the trees. Little else is known about their behaviour.
"These are big animals, but we know next to nothing about them and that's very telling. We meddle in the tropics at our peril, because we really don't know enough about what's going on there," said Dr Wright. "We know now these are two distinct species, so we have to direct conservation efforts at both the island and mainland populations."