Jan 24

The ‘newest’ cat species to science, Diard’s clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi), actually exists in two distinct forms, a new study has confirmed.

This enigmatic big cat was only described as a species in 2007, previously being considered as a subspecies of its mainland relative, the clouded leopard. Now a genetic analysis has discovered that Diard’s clouded leopard comes in two forms, one living in Sumatra (Neofelis diardi diardi), the other on Borneo (Neofelis diardi borneensis).

Photo of Diard's clouded leopard walking in natural forest habitat

A Diard's clouded leopard caught with a camera trap while walking in natural forest habitat.

The first footage of Diard’s clouded leopard in the wild was captured only last year, when a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, captured images of a Diard’s clouded leopard walking along a road. Now these researchers have published new research which reveals even more about this mysterious cat.

Clouded leopard photo

Clouded leopards are the most elusive of all big cats. Living across south-east Asia, into China and India, clouded leopards have larger cloud-like spots than ordinary leopards.

Published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, the study conducted molecular and genetic studies on 15 Diard’s clouded leopards living in Borneo and 16 living in Sumatra. In addition, 28 skulls from a further 28 Diard’s clouded leopards and the fur coats of 20 specimens held in museums were examined, as well as the coats of cats photographed on both islands. 

The differences between the two forms are not obvious. But as well as being genetically distinct, the Diard’s clouded leopards on Borneo and Sumatra are morphologically different, having unique features in their skulls and teeth.

Close up photo of a Diard's clouded leopard

Diard’s clouded leopard has impressive tree climbing abilities, and is capable of running head-first down tree trunks, climbing about on the underside of branches, and hanging upside down by its hind feet with the tail providing balance.

It is unclear what caused Diard’s clouded leopard to evolve into two forms. 

“So far we can only speculate about the specific course of events in the evolution of the clouded leopard,” said Joerns Fickel, a team member at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. 

But researchers think that a volcanic eruption on Sumatra 75,000 years ago may have wiped out most clouded leopards. One group survived in China and colonised the rest of mainland Asia, whilst another group hung on in Borneo to later become Diard’s clouded leopard. This species may then have evolved into two types after a group colonised Sumatra via glacial land bridges, and then became cut off as sea levels rose.

Watch a video of the clouded leopard on ARKive.

To read more about this, see the BBC article.

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author