Clouded Leopard: New Species Holds New Insights

BY MARIAH RASMUSSEN

Clouded leopards are a unique species of cat; a species that is one of the least known about cats in the world (Wilting & Buckley-Beason, et al, 2007).  Clouded leopards are, by nature, very secretive, and rare animals, with a population of only about 230 cats worldwide (http:\\bigcatrescue.org/clouded-leopard-facts/).  The clouded leopard is a relatively small cat and is considered somewhere between a small cat and a great cat.  It cannot be considered a small cat, because it cannot purr, but it cannot be considered a great cat either, because it cannot roar (http:\\bigcatrescue.org/clouded-leopard-facts/).

The clouded leopard was named for its cloud-like markings on its body.  In general the clouded leopard weighs 22-45 pounds, and has a tail that is the same length as its head and body, and they are excellent tree climbers, with their ability to climb upside down and hang from branches by their hind legs (http:\\bigcatrescue.org/clouded-leopard-facts/).   Until recently all clouded leopards have been labeled as the same species.  However, it has been discovered that there are actually two different species of clouded leopards: the neofelis nebulosa, and the neofelis diardi.

“Recent morphological and molecular studies led to the recognition of two extant species of clouded leopards; Neofelis nebulosa from mainland southeast Asia and Neofelis diardi from the Sunda Islands of Borneo and Sumatra, including the Batu Islands” (Wilting, et al, 2011).  These two species separated over 1.4 million years ago by traveling across Asia by ways of a land bridge that is now covered with water (Smith, 2007).

After these leopards were separated from each other, they started to evolve to their habitats differently, and as a result developed into two different species; one species residing in southern Asia, while the other inhabits the islands off the coast of southeast Asia.  The two species “differ markedly with respect to craniodental and pelage morphology and genomic characters” (Christiansen & Kitchener, 2011).  This means that there are major differences in their jaws, skulls, and basic DNA, as well as minor differences in their appearances.  Scientists say these clouded leopard species are “as different as a lion from a tiger” (Smith, 2007).

The species that experts originally thought was the only species of clouded leopards is titled, “neofelis nebulosa.”  This species of clouded leopard inhabits the mainland of southern Asia, while the recent discovery of the species, “neofelis diardi,” inhabits the islands of southeast Asia (Kitchener, & Beaumont, & Richardson, 2006).  Along with the differences in the skull, jaw, and skin, the differences that the untrained professional can see, are in the patterns and coloration of the fur.  The neofelis nebulosa’s fur is much lighter than that of the neofelis diardi.  This accompanied by the neofelis nebulosa’s larger cloud-like markings, and only one stripe along the back instead of two, are the most obvious differences.

Smaller differences between these two species include the longer upper canines of the neofelis diardi, as well as the observation that the neofelis diardi has more spots within the cloud-like markings than that of the neofelis nebulosa (Smith 2007).  So although there are many differences between the two species of the clouded leopard, there are also many similarities between the two that make it easy to understand why they were originally seen as one species, such as, their basic body structure, and similar markings.

Scientists attribute the original inaccuracies of the clouded leopard being one species to “undisputed lack of a type specimen” (Christiansen & Kitchener, 2011).  Since the clouded leopard is such a rare cat, as well as a secretive cat, they are difficult to study extensively.  When the clouded leopard was being studied for the first time, there were not very many specimens to study.  Scientists were lacking in their supply of these clouded leopards that were available for studying.  For this reason, there was a lack of diversity in the group of the specimens that were studied, resulting in the finding of only one species of clouded leopard.  However, when more specimens became available from different regions, scientists were then able to get more diverse data, which forced them to recognize that there are actually two different species.

There is still a lot that is unknown about these animals, and time is limited because the clouded leopards are now becoming endangered animals (Pukazhenthi, et al, 2006).  Any research that can be done about the clouded leopards is of great importance, because of the difficulty with researching these secretive creatures.  The discovery of the two species of clouded leopards is great progress in beginning to understand the clouded leopards as they are individually.  When before, scientists were studying the clouded leopard’s nature as one species, they can now make more detailed discoveries about the two different species of clouded leopards.

References

Big Cat Rescue. (2006). Big cat facts. Clouded leopard facts. Retrieved from http://bigcatrescue.org/clouded-leopard-facts/

Christiansen, P. (2008). Species distinction and evolutionary differences in the clouded leopard (neofelis nebulosa) and Diard’s clouded leopard (neofelis diardi). Journal of Mammalogy, 89(6), 1435-1446.

Christiansen, P., & Kitchener, A. C., (2011). A neotype of the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa griffith 1821). Mammalian Biology, 76(3), 325-331.

Kitchener, A. C., Beaumont, M. A., & Richardson, D. (2006). Geographical variation in the clouded leopard, neofelis nebulosa, reveals two species. Current Biology: CB, 16(23), 2377-2383.

National Geographic. (2011). Daily news. Elusive clouded leopard captured on film – a first. Retrieved from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110302- clouded-leopards-camera-animals-science/

Pukazhenthi, B., Bush, M., Pelican, K. M., Wildt, D. E., Howard, J.G., Crosier, A.,…Bush, L. M., (2006). Challenges in cryopreservation of clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) spermatozoa. Theriogenology, 66(7-8), 1790-1796.

Smith, L. (2007, March 15). After 200 years, a new big cat came out of the jungle. The (United Kingdom) Times, p. 25.

Wilting, A., & Buckley-Beason, V.A., & Feldhaar, H., & Gadau, J., & O’Brien, S. J., & Linsenmair, E. K., (2007). Clouded leopard phylogeny revisited: Support for species recognition and population division between Borneo and Sumatra. Frontiers in Zoology, 4, 1-10.

Wilting, A., Christiansen, P., Kitchener, A. C., Kemp, Y. J. M., Ambu, L., & Fickel, J. (2011). Geographical variation in and evolutionary history of the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) with the description of a new subspecies from Borneo. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution, 58(2), 317-328.

Wilting, A., Mohamed, A., Ambu, L. N., Lagan, P., Mannan, S., Hofer, H., & Sollmann, R. (2012). Density of the vulnerable Sunda clouded leopard neofelis diardi in two commercial forest reserves in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Oryx, 46(3), 423-426.



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