Borneo's clouded leopard is a new cat species

Posted: 15 March 2007

Scientists have discovered that the clouded leopard found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is entirely new species of cat. The finding is likely to give fresh impetus to last month's three-country declaration to conserve and sustainably manage the great wilderness known as the Heart of Borneo.

Bornean clouded leopard
Bornean clouded leopard
Bornean clouded leopard, Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia.Photo credit: © WWF-Canon/Alain COMPOST
Borneo's secretive rainforest animal was originally thought to be the same species as the one found in mainland South-east Asia. Butresearchers at the US National Cancer Institute say the differences between the Borneo and mainland clouded leopard were found to be comparable to the differences between other large cat species such as lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard.

They believe the Borneo population probably diverged from the mainland population some 1.4 million years ago.

The news comes just a few months after a WWF report showed that scientists had identified at least 52 new species of animals and plants over the past year on Borneo. WWF says these repeated findings show how crucial it is to conserve the habitat and species of the world's third-largest island.

Stuart Chapman, WWF International Coordinator of the Heart of Borneo programme, said: "Who said a leopard can never change its spots? For over a hundred years we have been looking at this animal and never realized it was unique. The fact that Borneo's top predator is now considered a separate species further emphasises the importance of conserving the Heart of Borneo."

Dr Stephen O'Brien, Head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, US National Cancer Institute, said: "Genetic research results clearly indicate that the clouded leopards of Borneo should be considered a separate species. DNA tests highlighted around 40 differences between the two species."

Genetic study

The results of the genetic study are supported by separate research on geographical variation in the clouded leopard, based mainly on fur patterns and coloration of skins held in museums and collections.

"The moment we started comparing the skins of the mainland clouded leopard and the leopard found on Borneo, it was clear we were comparing two different species," said Dr Andrew Kitchener, from the Department of Natural Sciences, National Museums Scotland. "It's incredible that no one has ever noticed these differences."

The Borneo clouded leopard has small cloud markings, many distinct spots within the cloud markings, greyer fur, and a double dorsal stripe. It is altogether darker than the mainland species. Clouded leopards from the mainland have large clouds on their skin with fewer, often faint, spots within the cloud markings, and they are lighter in color, with a tendency toward tawny-coloured fur and a partial double dorsal stripe.

Biggest predators

Clouded leopards are the biggest predators on Borneo, sometimes as large as small panthers, and noted for having the longest canine teeth relative to body size of any cat.

A total number of 5,000 to 11,000 Bornean clouded leopards are estimated to live on Borneo. The total number in Sumatra could be in the range of 3,000 to 7,000 individuals. However, further studies are needed to obtain better population data. Destruction of their habitat is the main threat they face. The last great forest home of the Bornean Clouded Leopard is the Heart of Borneo, a 220,000km2 wild, mountainous region - about five times the size of Switzerland - covered with equatorial rainforest in the centre of the island.

Last month in Bali (Indonesia), the ministers of the three Bornean governments - Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia - signed an historic Declaration to conserve and sustainably manage the Heart of Borneo. This has put the area on the global stage of conservation priorities.

Related link:

Governments pledge to save Heart of Borneo