Two forms of world's 'newest' cat, the Sunda leopard
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News
Did Bornean clouded leopards evolve new spots?
The "newest" cat species described to science, the Sunda clouded leopard, actually exists in two distinct forms, scientists have confirmed.
This big cat is so enigmatic that researchers only realised it was a new species - distinct from clouded leopards living elsewhere in Asia - in 2007. The first footage of the cat in the wild to made public was only released last year.
Now a genetic analysis has confirmed that the cat comes in two forms, one living in Sumatra, the other on Borneo.
Clouded leopards are the most elusive of all the big cats, which include lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards and normal spotted leopards.
So far we can only speculate about the specific course of events in the evolution of the clouded leopard
Joerns Fickel Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research
Living across south-east Asia, into China and India, the leopards have larger cloud-like spots than ordinary leopards.
Until 2006, all clouded leopards were thought to belong to a single species.
However, genetic studies revealed that there are actually two quite distinct clouded leopard species.
As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland (Neofelis nebulosa), scientists determined that a separate clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.
The two species are thought to have diverged over one million years ago.
This leopard is now known as the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), though it was previously and erroneously called the Bornean clouded leopard.
Since 2008, it has been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
In 2010, a team of scientists working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia released the first footage of the cat in the wild to be made public.
Unperturbed by the spotlight (Footage courtesy of A Wilting/A Mohamed/Cat News)
Led by Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, the researchers captured images of a Sunda clouded leopard walking along a road.
Now Mr Wilting and colleagues have published new research which reveals even more about this mysterious cat.
They sampled 15 Sunda clouded leopards living on Borneo and 16 living in Sumatra, conducting molecular and genetic studies to reveal their origin.
The researchers also examined the skulls of 28 further Sunda clouded leopards and the fur coats of 20 specimens held in museums, as well as the coats of cats photographed on both islands.
"Although we suspected that Sunda clouded leopards on Borneo and Sumatra have likely been geographically separated since the last Ice Age, it was not known whether this long isolation had caused them to split up into separate sub-species," explains Wilting.