How Geography Created Three Subspecies of Snow Leopard

Snow leopards. Credit: Pixel-mixer/pixabay

The Wire, by Janaki Lenin: While scientists struggle to study snow leopards to the same degree as other large cats like tigers, lions, and leopards have been studied, the terrain continues to frustrate them.

The terrain of snow leopard country has a third dimension that most other large cats cannot boast – the jagged mountain ranges of Central Asia. The cat’s ability to climb up and along cliff faces defeated scientific enquiry for decades. Only with the advance of technology have researchers been able to track these elusive felines in some of the remotest parts of the world. While snow leopards can crest mountains, the tallest peaks could hold them back. Would this containment create isolated populations that would evolve separately enough to be called subspecies? For more than two decades, researchers suspected the species wasn’t uniform from Kazakhstan to Mongolia to the eastern edges of Tibet.

So far researchers analysed differences between populations with the sparse material at hand – captive animals, research subjects, museum specimens, and animals killed by hunters. Curators of captive animal collections and museums knew little about the origins of the specimens in their holdings. So much of the available animals and pelts couldn’t be used. To track differences between populations, researchers need to examine several specimens across the species’ range. Otherwise, they could mistake individual exceptions to be the standard for the population, like this example…

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