Snow Leopards: Scientists Discover Three New Subspecies of the World's Most Elusive Big Cat

A snow leopard peers around a rock at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois. Scientists have discovered three subspecies of snow leopard by analyzing their scat. Reuters

Three subspecies of snow leopard have been discovered by scientists in the first ever genetic analysis of wild populations across vastly different ranges.

The snow leopard—Panthera uncia—is the world's most elusive and least-studied big cat. It lives in remote mountain ranges across Central Asia,inhabiting an area that spans 600,000 square miles across 12 countries. t is normally found at altitudes above 3,000 meters (1.8 miles) where oxygen levels are low, temperatures are extreme and the climate is harsh.

But snow leopards are facing increasing threats and while it is difficult to assess their total population, it is estimated that just 3,920 and 6,390 exist in the wild. They are hunted by poachers and their natural range is increasingly being infringed upon by humans. Furthermore, climate change is expected to significantly alter their habitat.

In the latest study published in the Journal of Heredity, scientists analyzed scat (feces) from known marking sites—where snow leopards leave each other messages via scents—and wildlife trails.

They discovered three genetic subspecies that could be clearly separated by their geographical location, in the Altai region, the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau and those found in Tian Shan, Pamir, and trans-Himalayan regions.

A snow leopard walks in its enclosure at the Highland Wildlife Park in Scotland. Previously it was thought the snow leopard was monotypic, meaning there were no subspecies. Reuters

Study author Jan E. Janecka tells Newsweek in an email interview: "Based on the geographic and ecological differences between some of these areas of Asia—like western Mongolia versus the Tibetan Plateau—some researchers had previously thought there may be different subspecies so it was not entirely a surprise."

"There were several described historically. However, to date these had not been accepted largely due to lack of data and specimens needed to perform a thorough taxonomic analysis. Compared to other cats, there are much fewer snow leopard museum specimens and so to address this question we used genetics."

But what does the discovery of subspecies mean? We know very little about them—compared to other big cats—for three main reasons: They live in remote regions that are often politically unstable, they are hard to track because they are so hard to find in the first place and the geographic origin of captive snow leopards is rarely known.

The three separate groups appear to have evolved as a result of being isolated geographically, with the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas dividing the three snow leopard subspecies from one another. This provides the first look at how these populations are structured and connected. Understanding this, the scientists say, is key to their conservation.

"It makes [conservation] it easier," Janecka says. "The snow leopard status and conservation challenges can vary across different regions. As a species, it can have a certain status, and but then each subspecies can have its own specific designation that is appropriate for that respective area, with the most relevant conservation plans. Whenever you can make conservation more flexible, and more in tune with what the species faces in a particular region, you are going to be more successful."

He adds he does not expect to discover any more subspecies of snow leopard—they saw some degree of demographic independence within the populations—but that "it is best to be open-minded and sample the additional population first and see where they fall out."