Hidden amongst the rocky and mountainous terrain in the lofty peaks of the Himalayas roams one of the world’s most elusive cats. Yet so little is known about snow leopards, researchers have only just uncovered that there are in fact three subspecies of the felines prowling through Asia.
Their remote and often inaccessible ranges mean that snow leopards are actually the last of the five big cat species – which also includes the lion, leopard, jaguar, and tiger – to have had a comprehensive subspecies assessment made of them. It turns out the high-altitude cats can be split into three distinctive populations: the Northern group (Panthera uncia irbis), the Western group (P. u. uncia) and the Central group (P. u. uncioides).
They found that within the huge area the felines are discovered – some 1.6 million square kilometers (over 600,000 square miles), covering 12 countries – there are at least two significant barriers to their movement. The Northern group, which is found in the Altai region of Mongolia, is cut off from other cats by the expanse of the Gobi desert. The Central group, which is found in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, is further split from the Western population of India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan by the trans-Himalayas dividing range.
Due to the elusive nature of the leopards, the researchers turned to non-invasive techniques to get genetic samples from 70 cats from right across their range. This involved collecting their scat, or poop, from walking trails in the mountains of central Asia. Interestingly, they could not utilize the genetics of snow leopards in captivity, because where the original cats came from is not actually known. Their results are published in the Journal of Heredity.
Some may think that the dividing up into subspecies is fairly pointless, especially considering there isn’t really a steadfast definition for a species, let alone any smaller unit. But the researchers maintain this is an important step to take, not only in our quest to learn more about the felines, but also in our bid to protect and preserve the species for generations to come.
“Delineating subspecies provides two main benefits,” explained Dr Jan Janecka, who co-authored the paper. “The first is a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of the species. The second is that it enables more flexible conservation measures, so plans can be developed specific to the challenges faced within a particular region.”
The study provides a great jumping off point for which more can be done to better understand how the populations are structured and if there is any mixing at all between the subspecies. The more connectivity there is, then the better the chances of survival for one of the least known felines in the world.