Biology Faculty Articles


Phylogeographic subspecies recognition in leopards (Panthera pardus): Molecular genetic variation

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Conservation Biology





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The incorporation of precise definitions for taxonomic units into wildlife legislation has necessitated the reevaluation of the taxonomy of endangered and threatened species. We used the subspecies recognition criteria proposed by Avise and Ball (1990) and O'Brien and Mayr (1991) to examine the intraspecific taxonomy of the leopard, Panthera pardus, a geographically widespread species with 27 currently recognized trinomial designations. Samples from named subspecies revealed appreciable genetic diversity using three molecular methods allozymes, mitochondrial DNA restriction sites, and feline-specific minisatellites. Continental populations and subspecies from Africa and Asia possessed the highest amount of molecular genetic variation, whereas relatively lower amount of diversity were present in island populations. Molecular data were analyzed using three phylogenetic methods (distance-matrix, maximum parsimony, and maximum likelihood) to resolve genetic differentiation below the species level. The combined results revealed phylogenetic distinction of six geographically isolated groups of leopards; (1) African, (2) central Asian, (3) Indian, (4) Sri Lankan, (5) Javan, and (6) east Asian. Based on the combined molecular analyses and supporting morphological data (Miththapala 1992), we recommend that subspecific leopard taxonomy be revised to comprise eight subspecies; (1) P. p. pardus, Africa; (2) P. p. saxicolor, central Asia; (3) P. p. fusca, Indian subcontinent; (4) P.p. kotiya, Sri Lanka; (5) P. p. melas, Java; (6) P. p. orientalis, Amur; (7) P. p. japonensis, northern China; and (8) P. p. delacouri, southern China. In most cases, designated subsepecies conform to historic geological barriers that would have facilitated allopatric genetic divergence.