Researchers at BYU successfully sequenced the entire genome of leopard species going extinct

Dec 14, 2022, 6:04 PM

Researchers at the BYU and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute used samples from one cap...

Researchers at the BYU and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute used samples from one captive mainland clouded leopard and one wild Sunda clouded leopard.(Photo credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo. Courtesy Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.)

(Photo credit: Nate Edwards/BYU Photo. Courtesy Loveland Living Planet Aquarium.)

PROVO, Utah — Researchers at the Brigham Young University and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are trying to protect the Sunda clouded leopard and the Mainland clouded leopard species through genetic research. In doing so, the team successfully sequenced the entire genome of both species for the first time. 

Contrary to previous research, the new study proved clouded leopards diverged into two separate species much earlier than previously thought. A release from BYU said the clouded leopards diverged 5.1 million years ago.

Previous estimates were 1.5 to 2 million years ago. This divergence is older than ones between species, such as leopards and lions. 

Researchers used samples from one captive Mainland clouded leopard and one wild Sunda clouded leopard.

Colleagues of researchers at BYU and the SCBI captured a wild Sunda cloud leopard to get the samples needed. The release did not state where the Mainland clouded leopard was captured from.

Why the research matters

BYU professor and study author Paul Frandsen said this knowledge is important to help preserve special variation within the species.

“The deeper the species divergence, the more genetic differences are accumulated over time. If two species diverged 5 million years ago versus 2 million years ago, that just gives a lot more time for the genome to accumulate unique variation,” said Frandsen. “That’s critical for conservation because we want to maintain that unique variation within the species.”

Furthermore, this new study confirms studies from 2006 proving that the two species of clouded leopards are genetically distinct. Prior to the 2006 studies, researchers believed the two species were one. 

“These two species still look really similar and if one of them ran past me in the wild, there’s no way I would be able to tell you which one it was,” Frandsen said.

Additionally, the research helps conservation managers to better understand how the species may adapt to changing environments differently. 

“This BYU study is important to the future conservation of the species because while we knew that there were two separate species of cloud of leopard, we did not realize exactly how distinct they were and how long ago in time they diverged,” said Laura Shipp, a zookeeper who cares for two clouded leopards at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium. 

She also said how knowing the distinctions changes how to approach saving both species.

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Researchers at BYU successfully sequenced the entire genome of leopard species going extinct