Three Subspecies of Snow Leopard Revealed

There are three different subspecies of the snow leopard ( Panthera uncia ), the world’s most elusive large big cat, according to a new study published in the Journal of Heredity .

Three Subspecies of Snow Leopard Revealed

According to Janecka et al , the snow leopard ( Panthera uncia ) is actually three different subspecies. Image credit: Dingopup / The Cat Survival Trust / CC BY-SA 3.0.
The snow leopard is most closely related to the tiger ( Panthera tigris ), having diverged over 2 million years ago.
It inhabits a vast area of 0.6 million sq.miles (1.6 million sq.km) across 12 countries in Asia.
It is a high-altitude animal that occupies mountains primarily between 0.9 and 2.8 miles (1.5-4.5 km), with confirmed sightings to 3.7 miles (6 km) in the Himalayas. This region is characterized by low oxygen levels, temperature extremes, aridity, low productivity, and harsh climatic condition, yet harbors many distinctive species.
The snow leopard is the largest carnivore in its habitat in many areas, and faces threats including low prey densities, retaliatory killing by farmers and herdsmen in response to livestock depredation, illegal wildlife trade, climate change, and development of roads, rails, mining, and hydropower facilities.
Presently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers the snow leopard a monotypic species.
But new DNA evidence shows that at least three subspecies of the animal exist.
“We conducted the first range-wide genetic assessment of snow leopards based on noninvasive scat surveys,” said lead author Dr. Jan Janecka, an assistant professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and co-authors.
“We obtained scat samples from 21 localities in seven geographic regions. A total of 70 representative individuals were genotyped at 33 microsatellite loci.”
The team’s analysis revealed three major groups consistent with the geographic distribution of sampled localities.
“Specifically, the snow leopards from the Tibetan Plateau (northern Qinghai, southern Qinghai, and Tibet) and the principal portion of the Himalaya (Bhutan and Nepal) clustered together into a ‘Central group,’ the snow leopards from Western Himalaya (India), Karakorum, Pamir, Alay and Tian Shan (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) formed a ‘Western group,’ and those from Altai (western Mongolia) and Southern Gobi (southern Mongolia) formed a ‘Northern group’,” the authors said.
“Accordingly, we recognize three subspecies, Panthera uncia irbis (Northern group), Panthera uncia uncia (Western group), and Panthera uncia uncioides (Central group) based upon genetic distinctness, low levels of admixture, unambiguous population assignment, and geographic separation.”
The patterns of variation amongst the snow leopard subspecies suggest a ‘barrier effect’ due to the desert basins in the area, with the northern subspecies isolated by the Gobi Desert and the central and western species divided by the trans-Himalayas.
“This study is important as it provides the first glimpse of how snow leopard populations are structured and connected, in a nutshell, populations that are connected with other populations, are more stable and have a greater chance of persisting,” Dr. Janecka said.
“Delineating subspecies provides two main benefits:
(i) the first is a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of the species;
(ii) the second is that it enables more flexible conservation measures, so plans can be developed specific to the challenges faced within a particular region.”
“Our study highlights the need for transboundary initiatives to protect this species, and other wildlife in Asia,” he said.