The snow leopard is one of the most elusive cats in the world which inhabits a vast area of around 1.6 million km2 across 12 countries in Asia. Scientists have long thought that this species is monotypic, which means a genus with only one species. However, researchers from the Duquesne University in Iowa have discovered three subspecies of snow leopard in the first ever genetic analysis of wild populations across vastly different ranges.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Jan Janeska pointed out that this study is important as it provides the first glimpse of how snow leopard populations are structured and connected.

Hidden Ruler Of The Mountains

Snow leopards have evolved to live in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. For thousands of years, the snow leopard ruled the mountains, feasting on wild sheep, goat, and marmots, though these days its numbers are dwindling, with hunting and habitat loss the main reasons for its endangered status. These are all reasons why studying this species in the past was so difficult.

Since they live in remote places, scientists started to gather snow leopard droppings along wildlife trails and marking sites, finding this approach as easiest and non-invasive. Using this technique, an international team of scientists has collected DNA and sequenced the genome. The results of the genomic survey suggest the species features three distinct genetic clusters, each organized by geographic confines.

Snow leopards have three primary genetic clusters differentiated by their geographical location. Image credit: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Now, we recognize these three subtypes:

  • Panthera uncia irbis – this is northern group find in the Altai region of Siberia and appears to be isolated by the presence of the Gobi Desert.
  • Panthera uncia uncioides – this is a central group which populates the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau.
  • Panthera uncia uncial – this is a western group which roams in the Tian Shan, Pamir, and trans-Himalaya regions.

Thanks to this first range-wide genetic analysis of wild snow leopard populations, we can have a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of these remarkable big cats. Study authors have no expectation to discover any more subspecies of snow leopard, but they believe their study highlights the need for transboundary initiatives to protect this species and other wildlife in Asia.