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‘New’ cat in Sumatra: clouded leopard is distinct subspecies

Just six years ago the beautiful medium-sized Asian cat, the clouded leopard, was considered a single species. Then in 2006 researchers announced that there were, in fact, two unique species of clouded leopard: one species (Neofelis nebulosa) that inhabited mainland Asia (from Nepal to China and south to peninsular Malaysia) and a more threatened species living on the islands of Borneo and of Sumatra, dubbed the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi). Now, researchers have confirmed that clouded leopards living on Sumatra are distinct from those on Borneo, further subdividing these two populations into unique subspecies.

“Although we suspected that Sunda clouded leopards on Borneo and Sumatra have likely been geographically separated since the last Ice Age, it was not known whether this long isolation had caused them to split up into separate sub-species,” says lead researcher Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in a press release.

Examining clouded leopard fur and bone from natural history museums around the world as well as living cats on both Borneo and Sumatra, Wilting and colleagues found that the long unconnected populations of clouded leopard showed differences in their genetics and the morphology of their skulls. However, both the Sumatra’s and Borneo’s clouded leopard share the same coat patterns. The researchers speculate that this is due to the similarity of their tropical forest environment.

The story of how the clouded leopard dispersed into so many unique cats is laden with natural disasters and climate changes. Researchers believe that Sunda clouded leopards were separated from the mainland Asian population by a massive volcano eruption around 75,000 years ago. Surviving only on the island of Borneo, the Sunda clouded leopard then colonized Sumatra across glacial land bridges during the Ice Age. These populations were then separated as the Ice Age ended and sea levels rose in turn, submerging the land bridges.

Both subspecies, the Bornean and the Sumatran, are classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List mostly due to the destruction of rainforest. Borneo and Sumatra are currently undergoing some of the world’s highest deforestation rates due to expansions of palm oil plantations, logging, human-caused fires, and pulp and paper plantations. This is devastating for clouded leopard, since like other big cats, they require large areas to survive and live in low densities. Clouded leopards are also killed for their coats, and sometimes perish in snares meant for other species.

In contrast to Borneo and Sumatra’s clouded leopards, the mainland leopard species is considered Vulnerable.

Camera trap photo of Sunda clouded leopard in Borneo by the Conservation of Carnivores in Sabah (ConCaSa) project in Tangkulap Forest Reserve. Photo copyright of Wilting & Mohamed, Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department. Photo by: Fernando Trujillo.

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