Friday, March 16, 2007

New species: Bornean Clouded Leopard!

Yesterday the WWF issued a press release announcing that a new species of big cat has been declared, the Bornean Clouded Leopard (Neofelis diardi). It is really rare to find previously undescribed mammal species, this is a HUGE deal in the zoology community. Genetic analysis at the National Cancer Institute has concluded that the genetic differences between this and 'regular' Clouded Leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) are at least as large as those separating jaguars, lions, tigers, etc.

The 'new' species (which is not actually new, persay, the populations have been known about for quite a while but have only now been classified as a separate species) have a darker pelage, with spots in their "cloud" markings and a double dorsal stripe. Also, there is distinct geographic separation between the two species. Only N. diardi inhabits the Malay Peninsula, specifically the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, while N. nebulosa lives on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

While there are estimated to be 5,000-11,000 mainland Clouded Leopards, the Bornean species is though to number 3,000-7,000, although it is very difficult to get accurate population information for these elusive species. The region of Borneo where this cat is found has yielded discoveries of 52 new species in just the last twelve months!

Clouded Leopards are ranked as an Appendix I endangered species by CITES, and as Vulnerable by IUCN. Hunting these cats is forbidden in most of its range, but these regulations are rarely enforced. It appears that attention drawn by this new discovery will greatly benefit conservation efforts, however: last month three Bornean governments: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia--signed an historic Declaration commiting to conserve the region known as the "Heart of Borneo"

You can find out more about Clouded Leopards and conservation efforts to protect them at the The Clouded Leopard Project website.

A couple of interesting leopard facts:
~They have the largest canine teeth of any cat, relative to total body size.
~They are considered to be the "most arboreal" of all big cat species.

Further References:
Buckley-Beason et al., (2006). Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinctions in Clouded Leopards. Current Biology 16(23): 2371-2376.

Kitchener et al. (2006). Geographical Variation in the Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, Reveals Two Species. Current Biology 16(23): 2377-2383.

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