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Environment

New great cat species identified in Borneo: WWF

GENEVA (Reuters) - Scientists have identified a leopard found on the South-East Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra as a new species of great cat, the global nature protection body WWF reported on Thursday.

A Borneon clouded leopard (neofelis diardi) is seen in this World Wildlife Fund (WWF) handout photo released to Reuters on March 15, 2007 . REUTERS/WWF-Canon/Alain Compost/Handout

Genetic and skin tests on the creature, now dubbed the Bornean clouded leopard, or Neofelis diardi, have shown that it is almost as different from clouded leopards found on the Asian mainland as lions are from tigers, the Swiss-based WWF said.

“For over 100 years we have been looking at this animal and never realised that it was unique,” said Stuart Chapman, coordinator of a WWF programme that aims at preserving the vast rain forests in a region known as the Heart of Borneo.

The announcement follows a December report from WWF saying dozens of new animal, fish, plant and tree species had recently been found on Borneo, one of the world’s last frontiers for biodiversity but under threat from deforestation.

Clouded leopards were first described scientifically in 1821 by British naturalist Edward Griffith and were given the official name Neofelis nebulosa. Until now, the mainland and island animals were believed to be a single species.

But DNA tests at the National Cancer Institute in the United States, WWF said, found some 40 genetic differences, indicating that they had diverged about 1.4 million years ago.

By comparison, the WWF said, there are 56 genetic differences between lions and the common leopard.

The U.S. researchers’ conclusions, it added, were backed up by results of studies of skin coloration and fur patterns by biologists working for Scotland’s National Museums.

DOUBLE STRIPE

The island clouded leopard -- believed to number between 5, 000 and 11,000 in Borneo and between 3,000 and 7,000 in Sumatra -- has small cloud markings, a double stripe down its back and its greyer fur is darker than the mainland species, the WWF said.

The mainland leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, which is found from Nepal to southern China and throughout South-East Asia, has large clouds on the skin with fewer spots inside, only a partial dorsal stripe and tawny-coloured fur.

The Borneo leopard, said WWF, is the main predator on the island -- shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam. It feeds on monkeys, small deer, birds and lizards, and has the longest canine teeth relative to size of any cat.

It is spread across most forested areas, from coastal areas to interior mountain ranges, but prefers dense lowland and hillside rainforest where its natural prey is largely found.

Its last great forest home is the Heart of Borneo, a wild mountainous region of 220,000 sq km (85,000 sq mile) -- five times the size of Switzerland -- in the center of the island, which the three governments last month pledged to protect.

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