Save The Javan Leopards, Say Indonesian Researchers

Based on their evolutionary history, Javan leopards are distinct from Asian leopards and are vulnerable to extinction.

AsianScientist (May 9, 2016) – An international team of researchers from Indonesia and Germany has discovered new insights into the evolutionary history of the Javan leopard. The results of the study confirm that Javan leopards are clearly distinct from Asian leopards and probably colonized Java in the Middle Pleistocene around 600,000 years ago, via a land bridge from mainland Asia.

The study, published in the Journal of Zoology, highlights the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts to preserve the Javan leopard from extinction.

Scientists from Indonesia’s national safari park, Taman Safari Indonesia, and Conservation International Indonesia worked in close collaboration with German colleagues to answer the question of whether the Javan leopard is a separate subspecies of the leopard.

The results show that Javan leopards have already reached a degree of genetic distinctiveness, which clearly warrants the classification of Javan leopards as a subspecies (Panthera pardus melas) of the leopard (Panthera pardus).

Leopards likely migrated from mainland Asia to Java during a prolonged period of low sea levels via a Malaya-Java land bridge that bypassed the island of Sumatra. This might be one reason why leopards exist on mainland Asia and on Java today, but do not occur on Sumatra or Borneo. However, fossils show that leopards occurred at least in some parts of Sumatra during the Pleistocene.

“We assume that leopards became extinct on this island after the massive eruption of the Toba volcano about 74,000 years ago. On Java, the impact of this eruption was minor, allowing leopards to survive there,” explains lead author Dr. Andreas Wilting.

The scientists reconstructed the evolutionary history of the Javan leopard using mitochondrial DNA sequenced from museum specimens of leopards from Java and compared this genetic information to leopard sequences from the Asian mainland and Africa. The potential historical distribution was reconstructed using species distribution models with environmental data from the Last Glacial Maximum and the Mid-Holocene.

The Javan leopard is the last big cat still roaming on Java after the Sunda clouded leopard and the Javan tiger went extinct, in the Holocene and early 1980s respectively. Subjected to anthropogenic pressures such as deforestation, the subspecies has dwindled significantly and is now listed as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. With only a few hundred individuals still existing in the wild and 52 living in captivity, the Javan leopard is one of the most threatened subspecies of big cats.

“The data presented in our study highlight the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts for this unique and distinctive subspecies,” emphasized program manager Mr. Anton Ario from Conservation International Indonesia.

The article can be found at: Wilting et al. (2016) Evolutionary History and Conservation Significance of the Javan Leopard Panthera pardus melas.


Source: Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research; Photo: Kern C./Tierpark Berlin.
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