By Alison Walker-Baird
Publish Date: 01/29/07
FREDERICK -- The clouded leopard's namesake cloud-like spots help camouflage the Asian wild cat in the forest, but a local scientist's discovery could help protect this vulnerable species from extinction at the hands of humans.
The population of this avid climber -- not a type of leopard but a separate "big cat" species -- has shrunk into endangerment, as the cats are hunted for their fur and meat, and their habitat is destroyed.
Four subspecies of clouded leopard had been recognized in Southeast Asia, but a researcher at the National Cancer Institute at Frederick discovered one of those is a separate species.
Finding that separate species may boost conservation efforts, said Karen Povey, coordinator of The Clouded Leopard Project, a conservation and research group based in Tacoma, Wash.
Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, where Povey is a staff biologist, founded the project in 1999 to bring awareness and education of clouded leopards to the public.
"We know so little about them," Povey said. "This is very exciting -- it shows we have so many opportunities to learn about clouded leopards."
NCI-F's findings were published in a December 2006 paper in Current Biology. The paper's lead author, Valerie Buckley-Beason, is a researcher in the institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, headed by Stephen O'Brien.
The scientific community will likely name the new species, Buckley-Beason said; its scientific name will probably be Neofelis diardi.
Buckley-Beason found major genetic differences between mainland clouded leopards, a subspecies found from Southern China to eastern Burma, and the diardi, found on the island of Borneo.
Though the new species may be able to reproduce with clouded leopards on the mainland, their island habitat isolates the diardi cats, making their population harder to sustain.
"On an island, you're stuck with the population you have," Buckley-Beason said.
Spotting a new species
Researchers have wondered for years if the Borneo clouded leopard could be a separate species, Povey said, because of obvious physical differences from other clouded leopards: The Borneo cat's coat is darker, with blotchy, less defined spots.
Buckley-Beason identified the new species while studying genes from the clouded leopard sub-species in fall 2003, as part of her master's work at Hood College. Samples from the Borneo clouded leopard weren't matching up with genes from the other sub-species.
She checked the genes several times, thinking the samples were contaminated. Finally, after confirming the samples were good, she compared the genomes and found striking differences.
"I asked my mentors, 'Am I looking at a new species?' Buckley-Beason said, smiling. "They nodded, and I was like, 'Oh my God!'"
The Laboratory of Genomic Diversity studies cats' evolutionary history and genetics as a way to learn more about infectious and hereditary diseases in humans.
Only a handful of researchers in the world are studying the clouded leopard, Buckley-Beason explained.
Warren Johnson, a staff scientist, said the diardi discovery provides valuable insight into cat evolution and should give impetus for studies of other species in Southeast Asia.
"A lot of experimentation has occurred in the natural world, from which we continue to learn a lot of lessons," he said. "This study is another example of how the tools and methods being used to study the genetic heritage of humans and human disease can simultaneously benefit other species."
Buckley-Beason, who is working toward her doctoral degree at George Mason University, has also studied diardi clouded leopards from the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and found they may be part of the new species with the Borneo cats. Her research will be published this spring.
Cat in the hat
Clouded leopards' looks and temperament may work to conservationists' advantage -- they resemble 30-pound house cats and rarely are known to attack humans -- but groups like The Clouded Leopard Project still face an uphill battle.
The United States Endangered Species Act lists the clouded leopard as endangered, and the World Conservation Union, also known as International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, lists the cat as vulnerable.
Clouded leopards are more abundant in Borneo than in other parts of Asia; the population in southern China is decreasing and the species is thought to be extinct in the wild in Taiwan.
To boost conservation, communities that would otherwise hunt clouded leopards must be shown the species' benefits and be offered economic alternatives to poaching, The Clouded Leopard Project's Povey said.
"Conservation doesn't happen in a vacuum," she said.
Buckley-Beason's research also showed great genetic similarity between clouded leopards in northeast China and those in Taiwan. The two countries were once connected. In her published study she suggests mainland Chinese clouded leopards could be introduced into Taiwan to help repopulate the island.