The leopard is the only species of big cat who lives today in freedom both in Africa and Asia. Due to its elusive nature and its adaptation to multiple environments (tropical jungle, savanna, deserts and mountain slopes) it has not been possible to make an accurate estimate of its global census, although there is evidence that its total population has decreased in a worrying way as a consequence of human activity, as has happened to many other animal species.
In an important scientific step to reconstruct evolutionary history and conservation status, the DNA sequence of the entire genome of 23 individuals from eight geographically separated local leopard subspecies has been analyzed and interpreted using the latest evolutionary and population ecology technologies. molecular. The ancient DNA sequences of 18 historical specimens were combined together with those of 5 living leopards to better understand the history of the leopard, including its migrations, the decreases in its population and the gradual genetic divergence between groups that were isolated from each other. The history in which the new analysis has allowed diving covers, roughly, the last half a million years.
The work is the work of an international team that includes scientists from Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in the United States, Potsdam in Germany, as well as Nottingham Trent, Cambridge and Leicester, the latter three in the UK.
Johanna Paijmans of the University of Cambridge, Stephen J. O’Brien of the NSU and their colleagues have been able to corroborate, with greater precision than that achieved in previous studies, the genetically distinctive character of nine subspecies previously suggested as such.
The different African populations have turned out to be genetically interrelated, suggesting an abundant gene flow through Africa, so that all African populations should be considered members of a single subspecies. That is not the case for populations of asian leopard.
A leopard. (Photo: Ekaterina Blidchenko)
The analysis has also revealed a striking genomic distance between leopards living in Asia and those in Africa. Researchers have found that Asian leopards are more genetically separated from leopards. african leopards than brown bears are to polar bears. In reality, the two groups of leopards evolved evolutionarily around the same time that Neanderthals separated from modern humans. Genetic differences between African and Asian leopards have been around for between 500,000 and 600,000 years. Asian leopards retain significantly less overall genetic variation than that seen in African leopards.
The simplest explanation for both the low Asian diversity and this large genetic difference may imply an origin of all leopards in Africa, with a single founding migration from Africa to Asia that took place between 500,000 and 600,000 years ago.
The genetic analysis has been published in the academic journal Current Biology under the title “African and Asian leopards are highly differentiated at the genomic level”. (Source: NCYT from Amazings)