Photo: Alain Compost/WWF-Canon

Surprising new research reveals the existence of two completely separate species of clouded leopards. In a study comparing differences in clouded leopard coat patterns and coloration throughout the cat’s range, researchers concluded that individuals found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are markedly different from animals found on the Southeast Asian mainland. These observations have been supported by genetic testing that determined the two populations of clouded leopards are so distinct as to warrant classifying them as different species. Researchers estimate that the two species diverged approximately 1.5 million years ago due to geographical isolation.

Instead of their prior classification as a clouded leopard subspecies (Neofelis nebulosa diardi), animals in Borneo and Sumatra would be re-classified as a new species, Neofelis diardi, possibly to be named the Sundaland clouded leopard.

The coat patterns of clouded leopards from Borneo and Sumatra differ from mainland animals by having smaller and darker cloud markings and a darker overall coat color. Although these differences and the results of the genetic testing are convincing, researchers emphasize that more study is still needed. Only three samples from Borneo were analyzed so more individuals need to be examined to determine if the same conclusion can apply to the entire population.

If the new classification of two clouded leopard species holds up to more scientific scrutiny it will have significant conservation implications. Borneo and Sumatra face some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, therefore more field research and conservation efforts of the new species should be a priority. Numbers of the new species are unknown, although one extremely rough estimate numbers the Borneo and Sumatran population at 8,000-18,000. The IUCN has recently designated the new Bornean species as vulnerable. However, due to their potentially low numbers on each island, the Bornean and Sumatran populations are each classified as endangered.

For more information on these new developments please see the following articles:

Kitchener, Andrew C., Mark A. Beaumont, and Douglas Richardson. Geographical Variation in the Clouded Leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, Reveals Two Species. Current Biology 16, 2377-2383, December 5, 2006 .

Buckley-Beason, Valerie A. et. al. Molecular Evidence for Species-Level Distinction in Clouded Leopards. Current Biology 16, 2371-2376, December 5, 2006.

via Borneo Clouded Leopard Classified as New Species.