AboutZoos, Since 2008


Ground-​breaking dis­cov­ery: there are three sub­species of the snow leopard

pub­lished 14 May 2017 | mod­i­fied 14 May 2017

Snow leopard mongolia SLTIn a major sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery, a team of researchers has announced that there appear to be three sub­species of the snow leop­ard. Until now, the elu­sive snow leop­ard, which inhab­its a vast area of 1.6 mil­lion km2 across mul­ti­ple coun­tries in Cen­tral and South Asia, was thought to be a sin­gle or “mono­typic” species (Pan­thera uncia). Despite the enor­mous size of its global range, hunt­ing and poach­ing have taken a seri­ous toll on the animal’s pop­u­la­tion, which today, is esti­mated to be only 3,500 to about 7000 wild cats.

The sci­en­tific arti­cle Range-​Wide Snow Leop­ard Phy­lo­geog­ra­phy Sup­ports Three Sub­species, doc­u­ment­ing the researchers’ ground-​breaking dis­cov­er­ies, is pub­lished on 4 May in the Jour­nal of Hered­ity (Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press).

The researchers, includ­ing co-​investigators Dr. Rod­ney Jack­son, Director-​Founder of the Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­vancy in Sonoma, Cal­i­for­nia, Tshe­wang Wangchuk, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Bhutan Foun­da­tion, who also serves on the Snow Leop­ard Conservancy’s Board of Direc­tors, and Dr. Jan E. Janecka, Duquesne Uni­ver­sity, in close part­ner­ship with 20 dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, obtained sam­ples of the animal’s scat (i.e., drop­pings) from wildlife trails and other areas fre­quented by the big cats, and then, analysed the DNA in the sam­ples. The DNA analy­sis revealed three dis­tinct “genetic clus­ters” that are geo­graph­i­cally sep­a­rated and war­rant sub­species sta­tus — the North­ern sub­species Pan­thera uncia irbis found in the Altai region, the Cen­tral sub­species Pan­thera uncia uncioides, found in the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and the West­ern sub­species Pan­thera uncia uncia found in the Tian Shan, Pamir and trans-​Himalaya moun­tain ranges.

Each of the pro­posed sub­species spans inter­na­tional bor­ders, with about 40 per­cent of the cat’s global range con­sid­ered trans-​boundary — thus under­scor­ing the need for inter­na­tional coop­er­a­tion. The snow leop­ard remained the last of the five big cats to be the sub­ject of a com­pre­hen­sive sub­species assess­ment, in part, because its habi­tat, includ­ing some of the high­est and cold­est moun­tain ranges in the world, is so inhospitable.

Based on their analy­sis of the animal’s DNA, the researchers believe that the snow leop­ard under­went a genetic bot­tle­neck approx­i­mately 8,000 years ago dur­ing what is called the Holocene Ther­mal Opti­mum, a period of time char­ac­ter­ized by warmer tem­per­a­tures, pre­cip­i­ta­tion, and a tree-​line shift to higher ele­va­tions on the Tibetan Plateau. This sug­gests that snow leop­ards may be par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to cli­mate change, and accord­ing to Dr. Jack­son, such changes are also expected to have a per­va­sive impact on the pas­toral­ists who share the same habi­tat over this vast area.

Ulti­mately, delin­eat­ing or sep­a­rat­ing Pan­thera uncia into sub­species pro­vides sci­en­tists with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the animal’s evo­lu­tion and ecol­ogy. The dis­cov­ery of the three new sub­species of snow leop­ards, how­ever is not a mere aca­d­e­mic exer­cise, but will have sig­nif­i­cant con­ser­va­tion impli­ca­tions. As Dr. Jack­son observes, “results from our genet­ics study help us bet­ter under­stand how snow leop­ard pop­u­la­tions are con­nected and could ben­e­fit from strategically-​targeted con­ser­va­tion actions to ensure con­tin­ued genetic interchange.”

Snug­gling Snow Leop­ards
These three snow leop­ards were caught on video together in the moun­tains out­side China’s Zhax­i­lawu monastery. In this area of the Qing­hai Province, Pan­thera part­ners with the Snow Leop­ard Trust and Shan Shui to mon­i­tor and pro­tect snow leop­ards and their prey.

(Source: Pan­thera YouTube channel)

The 12 coun­tries that com­prise the snow leopard’s range — Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Mon­go­lia, Nepal, Pak­istan, Rus­sia, Tajik­istan, and Uzbek­istan — have joined together to des­ig­nate 20 pro­tected land­scapes by 2020 to each sup­port at least 100 breed­ing snow leop­ards, as part of an inter­na­tional effort called the Global Snow Leop­ard & Ecosys­tem Pro­tec­tion Pro­gram (“GSLEP”). The researchers hope that their work will not only encour­age the GSLEP to des­ig­nate the pro­tected land­scapes, as expe­di­tiously as pos­si­ble, but imple­ment trans-​boundary and more flex­i­ble con­ser­va­tion mea­sures rec­og­niz­ing the genetic dis­tinct­ness of the three newly dis­cov­ered subspecies.

Dr. Jack­son, Direc­tor of the Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­vancy in Sonoma, Cal­i­for­nia was instru­men­tal in mak­ing the genet­ics study pos­si­ble by col­lab­o­rat­ing with the other researchers, includ­ing in-​country biol­o­gists, build­ing part­ner­ships with local com­mu­ni­ties, NGOs, and gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tions with finan­cial sup­port from the National Geo­graphic Soci­ety and others.

(Source: Snow Leop­ard Con­ser­vancy news release, 11.05.2017)

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