SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4) – Researchers at BYU and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are working tirelessly to save clouded leopards from extinction. 

Clouded leopards, considered to be the modern saber-tooth cat because of their massive canines by experts, are endangered due to habitat destruction and poachers. In fact, there are estimated to be between 4,000 to 6,500 snow leopards left in the wild. 

But researchers may have found a way to protect the cat’s future. For the first time ever, researchers have sequenced the entire genome of the clouded leopard. This discovery concluded that clouded leopards diverged 5.1 million years ago, which was much older than previously thought at 1.5 to 2 million years ago. This divergence is much older than the split from leopards and lions, and even older than the divergence from jaguars. 

“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 BYU professor and study author Paul Frandsen. “That’s critical for conservation because we want to maintain that unique variation within the species.”

Understanding the difference in genome is critical because it is connected to the cat’s ability to adapt to changing environments. 

“This BYU study is important to the future conservation of the species because while we knew that there were two separate species of clouded 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. “The fact that they’re so distinct changes the priorities and how we approach the problem of saving both species.”

The analyses also allowed researchers to complete the entire phylogenetic tree of all Pantherinae, which includes leopards, tigers, lions, snow leopards, jaguars and the two clouded leopard species. 

“It’s giving us really key knowledge that we can build upon about what genetic variation is out there and where we go from here, what comes next, and how we can preserve what variation we have,” Shipp said.

Here is a video on how the study of clouded leopards is aiding conservation efforts.