Up until 2006, scientists believed that all clouded leopards, elusive creatures with larger spots than normal leopards, all belonged to the same species. But it seems they were wrong.
The ‘newest’ cat species is the Sunda clouded leopard, and it actually exists in two distinct forms, according to scientists.
This big cat is distinct from clouded leopards living elsewhere in Asia and genetic analysis has confirmed that the cat comes in two forms, one living in Sumatra, the other on Borneo. The result of a holiday romance?
Clouded leopards are the most elusive of all the big cats, which include lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and normal spotted leopards, and they live throughout south-east Asia and into China and India.
However, genetic studies revealed that there are actually two quite distinct clouded leopard species, and not just one as was previously thought.
As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland (Neofelis nebulosa), scientists determined that a separate clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and the two species are thought to have diverged over one million years ago.
This leopard is now known as the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), as opposed to its previous, and erroneous, name of the Bornean clouded leopard. It was placed on the list of ‘vulnerable’ species in 2008 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The first footage of this elusive cat was released in 2010 after a team of scientists, led by Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, were working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia and spotted the leopard walking along a road.
Mr Wilting and his colleagues have since published new research which reveals even more about this mysterious cat.
They sampled 15 Sunda clouded leopards living on Borneo and 16 living in Sumatra, conducting molecular and genetic studies to reveal their origin. Researchers also examined the skulls of 28 further Sunda clouded leopards and the fur coats of 20 specimens held in museums, as well as the coats of cats photographed on both Borneo and Sumatra.
This latest research confirms that the ‘new’ species of cat actually comes in two forms, a Bornean subspecies and the Sumatran subspecies, and the results have have been published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
The differences between the two sub-species are not obvious and you would have a hard time telling them apart, but as well as being genetically distinct, the clouded leopards on both islands are also morphologically different, having unique features in their skulls and teeth.
What caused the Sunda clouded leopard to evolve into two forms is not known, although that does not stop them speculating.
One such theory is that a volcanic eruption on Sumatra 75,000 years ago may have wiped out most clouded leopards.
It is thought that one group survived in China and colonised the rest of mainland Asia, while another managed to survive in Borneo to become the Sunda clouded leopard. This group further evolved into two types after a group colonised Sumatra via glacial land bridges and then couldn’t get home after they became cut off as sea levels rose.
That’s the theory, anyway.