A New Species Emerges From Forest
DNA Evidence Leads Scientists to an Astounding Discovery
by Parwat Regmi, age 17
At a zoo in Paris, a captive clouded leopard recently gave birth to two female cubs. The cubs were named Pati and Jaya. Zookeepers, according to custom, waited to announce their birth until the mother and cubs were in a healthy condition.
These births are very important to scientists. The clouded leopard is an extremely threatened species. It is also a species that currently attracts much attention in the zoological world.
These large cats fall under the neofelis, or “new cat” species. Their habitat ranges from the forests of Nepal to the jungles of Borneo. They can also be found at high altitudes in the Himalayas.
About two years ago, scientists made an astounding discovery. New DNA research proves that clouded leopards that are native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are an entirely separate species than those living on the mainland of Asia. In other words, the leopards of Borneo and the leopards of mainland Asia that were thought to be the same clouded leopard specices are different cat species altogether.
This remarkable discovery was reported as part of the intensive research currently underway in remote areas on the island of Borneo. So far scientists have identified 52 previously unknown species of plants and animals in the dense Bornean rainforest.
Using DNA evidence, researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute now believe that the Bornean clouded leopards separated from mainland populations about 1.4 million years ago. The scientific term for this sort of separation during the process of evolution is diverge. These two species diverged 1.4 million years ago.
In fact, the two species of Asian clouded leopards are as different from each other as lions are from tigers.
“Genetic research results clearly indicate that the clouded leopards of Borneo should be considered a separate species,” says Dr Stephen O’Brien, head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity. He also reports that “DNA tests highlighted about 40 differences” between the Bornean and mainland species. In light of this discovery, conservationists will adjust efforts to protect the two species of leopards.
Clouded leopards are named for their distinctive pelt and their cloud-like markings. Because the base of their fur is soft yellow or rich brown in coloring, the cloudy markings help give this cat its unique and beautiful appearance. These markings also provide the leopards with excellent camouflage, helping them blend in perfectly with their surroundings.
One trait that distinguishes the clouded leopard from other big cat species is its unusually long tail. This tail, which can be as long as the cat’s body, creates balance. It also has the longest canine teeth of all cat family members. These unusual adaptations enable the clouded leopard to successfully hunt large animals.
Clouded leopards spend much of their time in the trees. Adaptation to their habitat of dense forests has provided them with short legs and broad, retractile paws to help them climb trees and creep through thick forest.
Their diet includes monkeys, mouse deer, porcupine, barking deer, birds, and fish. They surprise prey by stalking it carefully on the ground, or they ambush prey from tree branches. They can descend instantly and headfirst from trees. They are even able to hang upside down from tree branches.
All populations of clouded leopards are dwindling. They are now classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Deforestation and poaching are the primary threats to their survival. Poachers seek out and kill these leopards for their teeth and valuable pelts. Their bones are also used in some traditional Asian medicinal practices.
In Thailand and China clouded leopards are a delicacy, coveted by wealthy Asian tourists. To protect livestock from falling prey to leopards, farmers sometimes kill the clouded leopards without knowing how rare they are.
Clouded leopards have long been subjected to human disturbances, pushing them to the verge of extinction. Recently, the three countries that share the island of Borneo – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei – signed an important treaty. The “Heart of Borneo Treaty” is intended to preserve the rich biodiversity that exists in the Bornean rainforest.
Scientists hope the mainland countries of Asia will follow the Borneo treaty example and move quickly to protect the threatened clouded leopards.
[Sources: www.worldwildlife.org; www.panda.org; www.cbsnews.com; www.thebigzoo.com]