In a major scientific breakthrough, a team of researchers have discovered that there are three subspecies of the snow leopard, rather than a single “monotypic” species as previously believed. The elusive snow leopard inhabits a vast area of 1.6 million square kilometers (160 hectares) across multiple countries in Central and South Asia. Despite its enormous home range, snow leopard populations have taken a serious hit due to threats like hunting and poaching, and today only 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards are estimated to remain.
This new discovery—led by a team of researchers from 20 different institutions, including Dr. Rodney Jackson, Director-Founder of Snow Leopard Conservancy and a WCN Partner—obtained samples of snow leopard scat (or droppings) from wildlife trails and other areas frequented by these big cats, and upon analyzing the DNA in the samples, found three distinct “genetic clusters” that are “geographically separated and warrant subspecies status” – the Northern subspecies found in the Altai region, the Central subspecies found in the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, and the Western subspecies found in the Tian Shan, Pamir, and trans-Himalaya mountain ranges.
While being an incredible discovery in itself, this new information will allow scientists to better understand the snow leopard’s evolution and ecology, thereby having significant conservation implications. Scientists can now use this information to devise better solutions to protect this magnificent and iconic feline and prevent its extinction.