In a recent study published in the May 2016 issue of Journal of Zoology: Evolutionary history and conservation significance of the Javan leopard Panthera pardus melas, scientists in Germany and Indonesia reconstruct the evolutionary history of the Javan leopard and highlights the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts to preserve the Javan leopard from extinction.
As a result, their study confirms that Javan leopards are clearly distinct from Asian leopards and most likely colonised Java around 600,000 years ago utilizing a land bridge from mainland Asia.
Lead authors Andreas Wilting, R. Patel, H. Pfestorf from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo along with contributors from Wildlife Research, Taman Safari Indonesia, Potsdam University and Conservation International Indonesia, worked in close collaboration to answer the question whether the Javan leopard is a separate subspecies of the leopard, as this would heighten the need for efforts to improve its viability through active conservation measures. The results show that Javan leopards diverged from mainland Asian leopards in the Middle Pleistocene approximately 600,000 years ago and 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).
Abstract: The leopard Panthera pardus is widely distributed across Africa and Asia; however, there is a gap in its natural distribution in Southeast Asia, where it occurs on the mainland and on Java but not on the interjacent island of Sumatra. Several scenarios have been proposed to explain this distribution gap. Here, we complemented an existing dataset of 68 leopard mtDNA sequences from Africa and Asia with mtDNA sequences (NADH5 + ctrl, 724 bp) from 19 Javan leopards, and hindcasted leopard distribution to the Pleistocene to gain further insights into the evolutionary history of the Javan leopard. Our data confirmed that Javan leopards are evolutionarily distinct from other Asian leopards, and that they have been present on Java since the Middle Pleistocene. Species distribution projections suggest that Java was likely colonized via a Malaya-Java land bridge that by-passed Sumatra, as suitable conditions for leopards during Pleistocene glacial periods were restricted to northern and western Sumatra. As fossil evidence supports the presence of leopards on Sumatra at the beginning of the Late Pleistocene, our projections are consistent with a scenario involving the extinction of leopards on Sumatra as a consequence of the Toba super volcanic eruption (~74 kya). The impact of this eruption was minor on Java, suggesting that leopards managed to survive here. Currently, only a few hundred leopards still live in the wild and only about 50 are managed in captivity. Therefore, this unique and distinctive subspecies requires urgent, concerted conservation efforts, integrating in situ and ex situ conservation management activities in a One Plan Approach to species conservation management.
“The data presented in our study highlight the urgent need for concerted conservation efforts for this unique and distinctive subspecies”, emphasizes Anton Ario from Conservation International Indonesia.