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Wild Cats’ crit­i­cal con­ser­va­tion sta­tus could be due to their meat only diet

pub­lished 02 Novem­ber 2016 | mod­i­fied 02 Novem­ber 2016

amur leopardA team of researchers recently have sequenced the whole genome of the Far East­ern Amur leop­ard for the first time. It pro­vides new insight into car­nivory and how it impacts on genetic diver­sity and pop­u­la­tion size. The study results have been pub­lished on 11 Octo­ber in the open access jour­nal Genome Biol­ogy.

Mr. Yun­sung Cho, lead author from Ulsan National Insti­tute of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, said: “Using the Amur leop­ard genome and com­par­ing it to that of other mam­malian genomes we found that car­nivory seems to be a strong selec­tion force for genes involved in dietary adap­ta­tion — some­thing not as appar­ent in mam­mals that are omni­vores or her­bi­vores. For exam­ple, cows could eat meat with­out it hav­ing a major impact on their health, but leop­ards eat­ing grass would quickly die as they have evolved to sur­vive on meat [only].”

Spe­cial­ized diets result in phys­i­o­log­i­cal, bio­chem­i­cal and mor­pho­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions and car­nivory is con­sid­ered to be an evo­lu­tion­ary insta­ble diet. Cur­rent research shows that ani­mals in the cat fam­ily, Fel­i­dae, have rel­a­tively low genetic diver­sity and small pop­u­la­tion sizes. This could be due to the inflex­i­ble nature of their strict diet and explains their vul­ner­a­bil­ity and crit­i­cal con­ser­va­tion status.

Car­nivory related genetic adap­ta­tions such as extreme agility, mus­cle power and spe­cial­ized diet make leop­ards such suc­cess­ful preda­tors, but these lifestyle traits also make them genet­i­cally vulnerable.
Mr. Yun­sung Cho, lead author, Ulsan National Insti­tute of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, South Korea »

An inter­na­tional team of researchers gen­er­ated a new high-​quality Amur leop­ard genome assem­bly for ref­er­ence using a mus­cle sam­ple of a female from Dae­jeon O-​World (for­merly ‘Dae­jeon Zoo’) in Korea and two wild Amur leop­ard whole genomes. They then analysed a fur­ther 18 mam­malian genomes includ­ing eight car­ni­vores (domes­tic cat, tiger, chee­tah, lion, leop­ard, polar bear, killer whale and Tas­man­ian devil), five omni­vores (human, mouse, dog, pig, and opos­sum) and five her­bi­vores (giant panda, cow, horse, rab­bit, and ele­phant). Com­par­ing the genomes they found that car­ni­vores share two genes that are not present in other genomes that play an impor­tant role in bone devel­op­ment and repair, which could drive selec­tion for a diet spe­cial­ized towards meat.

Pro­fes­sor Steve O’Brien, who has been research­ing rare endan­gered cat species for decades empha­sizes that “Leop­ards are the most wide­spread species of the big cats, found in Africa to the Russ­ian Far East, and thrive in a vari­ety of envi­ron­ments. How­ever, pop­u­la­tions are fast declin­ing, espe­cially the Amur leop­ard, which is now crit­i­cally endan­gered and per­haps the most endan­gered ani­mal species on Earth.”

This is the first de novo genome assem­bly and the sec­ond leop­ard genome to be sequenced fol­low­ing the snow leop­ard pub­lished in 2013. The researchers hope that this Amur leop­ard ref­er­ence genome will serve as a use­ful tool for under­stand­ing Fel­i­dae evo­lu­tion and aid conservation.

Dr. Soonok Kim, who ini­ti­ated and led the project as the PI of National Insti­tute of Bio­log­i­cal Resources of Korea adds: “Cats are also a good model for study­ing health issues, such as human dia­betes, and this new leop­ard genome ref­er­ence is an envi­ron­men­tal trea­sure that could help us under­stand these con­di­tions further.”

(Source: Bio­Med Cen­tral press release via EurekAlert!, 01.11.2016)

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