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Cat Defender

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Clouded Leopards of Sumatra and Borneo Are Discovered to Be a Distinct Species from Their Cousins in Mainland Southeast Asia

"The moment we started comparing the skins of the mainland clouded leopard and the leopard found on Borneo, it was clear we were comparing two different species."
-- Andrew C. Kitchener, National Museums of Scotland

The presocratics, Plato, and other ancient thinkers were enthralled by the cosmos. They thought that it was beautiful even though it is barren and dead. Most moderns, both thinkers and pedestrians, only care about money and self-indulgence.

Although man sans doute was his positive attributes, few people would be either so vain or self-deluded as to describe him as either beautiful or noble. The same cannot be said about nature which at even this late date in history continues to astound.

Last month, for instance, researchers announced that the clouded leopards of Borneo, Sumatra, and the Batu Islands (See photo above) are a separate species from their cousins living on mainland southeast Asia. (See photo below).

The announcement was made by researchers at the National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Washington who used DNA testing to identify forty differences between the two groups of cats. Their findings came on the heels of a study conducted by Andrew C. Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland, Mark A. Beaumont of the University of Reading, and Douglas Richardson of the Singapore Zoo that found significant morphometric differences in the pelts of fifty-seven clouded leopards that they examined.

To their surprise, they found that the clouded leopards of Indonesia (Neofelis nebulosa diardi) have small clouds with many distinct spots within them, gray and dark fur, and twin stripes down their backs. The leopards from mainland southeast Asia (Neofelis nebulosa nebulosa), however, have large clouds with fewer spots inside them and their fur is lighter and tawnier in color. (See December 5, 2006 article in Volume 16, issue 23 of Current Biology entitled "Geographic Variation in the Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, Reveals Two Species.")

"The moment we started comparing the skins of the mainland clouded leopard and the leopard found on Borneo, it was clear we were comparing two different species," Kitchener later told the BBC on March 15th. (See "Island Leopard Deemed New Species.") "It's incredible that no one has ever noticed these differences."

The scientists estimate that the two species split about 1.4 million years ago but so far they have not given any reason for the divergence. Most likely, the islands were at one time connected to the mainland and when they broke off the two cats diverged genetically.

Researchers believe that the remote Japanese island of Iriomote was once connected to mainland China and when it broke away about two million years ago the Iriomote Wildcat (Prionailurus iriomotensis) split from what was destined to become Felis domesticus and became a distinct species. (See Cat Defender post of November 27, 2006 entitled "After Surviving on Its Own for at Least Two Million Years, Rare Japanese Wildcat Faces Toughest Battle Yet.")

Wildlife officials estimate that there are between five-thousand and eleven-thousand clouded leopards remaining on Borneo and between three-thousand and seven-thousand on Sumatra. Like the Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Rabbit as well as the Asian elephants and orangutans on Borneo, they are threatened by deforestation, poaching, and rising CO2 emissions. (See Cat Defender post of April 13, 2007 entitled "Killing and Torturing Wild and Domestic Cats in Order to Create Toygers Is Not Going to Save Sumatran Tigers.")

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists the clouded leopard as endangered while the Endangered Species Act bans the trafficking in clouded leopards. Enforcement is lax, however, and medicine, balms, and other assorted products manufactured from poached leopards and tigers are sold openly in Chinatowns all across America.

The nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei who control various parts of Borneo agreed earlier this year to protect two-hundred square kilometers of rainforest in the interior of the island but it remains to be seen if they will stand up to the powerful logging companies and palm oil plantations that are already destroying much of the animals' habitat.

Prior to the recent reclassification, all clouded leopards were thought to belong to a single species with four subspecies. In addition to the Indonesian and southeast Asian subspecies, there is another group in Taiwan (Neofelis nebulosa brachyurus) and one more in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Myanmar (Neofelis nebulosa macrosceloides). The clouded leopards of Taiwan are thought, however, to be extinct in the wild. (See map above.)

The leopards of Sumatra and Borneo are now classified as belonging to the species Neofelis diardi whereas the subspecies from southeast Asia, Taiwan, and the India and Nepal region remain within Neofelis nebulosa.

It is sad that the animals of this world who have lived for so long and overcome so much remain so vastly undervalued and unappreciated. They are truly what is beautiful and noble and yet because of his insatiable greed and will to dominate man is killing them off in record numbers and without hardly a twinge of remorse.

Photos: Alain Compost of World Wildlife Fund and BBC (clouded leopard of Indonesia), Nancy Vandermey of Wikipedia (mainland clouded leopard), and Current Biology (map).