A new study has been released in the Journal of Heredity. Using samples of snow leopard scat (poop) from across the cat’s range, a team of 26 scientists performed genetic analysis to better understand the species’ population structure. They determined that there are three distinct subspecies of snow leopards (Panthera uncia).
The possibility of the existence of multiple subspecies of snow leopards has been discussed since 1962. But these were based on morphological (appearance)-based traits, and they had not been confirmed genetically (Jackson et al., 2014; Hunter, 2015). The reason for this is that snow leopards are some of the most difficult cats to study. They live in harsh landscapes, are famously elusive, and occupy terrain that is difficult for humans to get around in. Furthermore, the origins of captive snow leopards and museum specimens are not well known. So there would be little use in analyzing DNA from such sources (Janecka et al., 2017).
The above limitations were recently overcome using collaboration, technology, and scat. Researchers collected wild snow leopard droppings from 21 locations across their range, and then ran a series of genetic tests on them. They learned that there are likely three different subspecies of snow leopard. They are:
- Panthera uncia uncia: Inhabits Central Asia. These include the Alay, Karakorum, Pamir, Tian Shan, and trans-Himalayan mountain ranges.
- Panthera uncia unciodies: Dwells in the Tibetan Plateau and the core Himalayan mountains.
- Panthera uncia irbis: Lives in the Southern Gobi desert and Altai mountains of Mongolia.
In addition to confirming the presence of multiple snow leopard subspecies, the authors discovered that the cats underwent a population bottleneck about 8,000 years ago. This occurred during the middle of the Holocene epoch.* It is likely that as the earth’s temperature rose during that time, snow leopard numbers fell considerably. This is critical information, because it suggests modern-day climate change may pose a serious threat for snow leopards (Janecka et al., 2017).
The above findings are important for several reasons. First, the confirmation of genetic subspecies of snow leopards will inform conservation strategies. For example, it will help determine where the most crucial biological corridors should be. It will be more beneficial to maintain connectivity within, rather than across, different subspecies. The knowledge that snow leopards have already demonstrated a vulnerability to warming climates is also vital, as has been stated above (Janecka et al., 2017).
*Note: The information in this link is not entirely accurate. We are no longer in the Holocene, but in the Anthropocene: an era when humanity’s impacts on the planet are so large that they threaten our future survival.