The famously elusive snow leopards of the Himalayas probably guard their fair share of secrets, but scientists have just uncovered one previously unknown, fairly significant piece of information about the enigmatic big cat. There are in fact three subspecies of snow leopard, rather than just one type as previously believed, with the droppings left behind on wildlife trails proving to be the tell-tale sign.

The snow leopard covers a pretty expansive area, its habitat spanning 12 Asian countries and an area of around 1.6 million sq km (618,000 sq mi). For thousands of years the snow leopard ruled the mountains, feasting on wild sheep, goat and marmots, though these days its numbers are dwindling, with hunting and habitat loss the main reasons for its endangered status.

Studying snow leopard populations in the past has been problematic, with the remote habitats hard to access, the animals hard to capture and fit with GPS trackers, and the ancestors of those in captivity hard to trace. Scientists are now starting to fill in some of the gaps with genetic sampling by gathering snow leopard droppings along wildlife trails and marking sites, an approach described as non-invasive and efficient.

Using this technique, an international team of scientists has conducted what they say is the first range-wide genetic assessment of snow leopards. This involved DNA sequencing 70 individuals, with the team sorting them into three different genetic clusters that were differentiated by location: a northern group called Panthera uncia irbis in the Altai region of Siberia, the central group in the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau called the Panthera uncia uncioides and the Panthera uncia uncia of the Pamir and Tian Shan mountains and trans-Himalaya region.

The researchers say that the patterns indicate some sort of "barrier effect," with the subspecies divided by desert basins in the region. Further studies involving genetic analyses are needed, however, to better understand how the different populations are structured and connected.

"In a nutshell, populations that are connected with other populations, are more stable and have a greater chance of persisting," says Jan Janecka Assistant Professor at Duquesne University and research team member. "Delineating subspecies provides two main benefits. The first is a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of the species. The second is that it enables more flexible conservation measures, so plans can be developed specific to the challenges faced within a particular region. Our study highlights the need for transboundary initiatives to protect this species, and other wildlife in Asia."

The research was published in the Journal Of Heredity.

Source: Duquesne University via EurekAlert