Biology Faculty Articles


African and Asian leopards are highly differentiated at the genomic level


Johanna L.A. Paijmans, University of Potsdam; University of Leicester; University of Cambridge;
Axel Barlow, University of Potsdam; Nottingham Trent University
Matthew S. Becker, Zambian Carnivore Programme
James A. Cahill, Rockefeller University; University of Florida
Joerns Fickel, University of Potsdam; Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research
Daniel W.G. Förster, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research
Katrin Gries, Der Grüne Zoo Wuppertal
Stefanie Hartmann, University of Potsdam
Rasmus Worsøe Havmøller, University of Copenhagen
Kirstin Henneberger, University of Potsdam
Christian Kern, Tierpark Berlin-Friedrichsfelde
Andrew C. Kitchener, National Museums Scotland; School of Geosciences
Eline D. Lorenzen, University of Copenhagen
Frieder Mayer, Museum für Naturkunde
Stephen James O'Brien, ITMO University; Nova Southeastern UniversityFollow
Johanna von Seth, Swedish Museum of Natural History; Centre for Palaeogenetics; Stockholm University
Mikkel-Holder S. Sinding, University of Copenhagen
Göran Spong, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
Olga Uphyrkina, Federal Scientific Center of the East Asia Terrestrial Biodiversity
Bettina Wachter, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research
Michael V. Westbury, University of Potsdam; University of Copenhagen
Love Dalén, Swedish Museum of Natural History; Centre for Palaeogenetics; Stockholm University
Jong Bhak, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST); Clinomics, Genome Research Foundation
Andrea Manica, University of Cambridge
Michael Hofreiter, University of Potsdam

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Current Biology


Genomes, Historical Samples, Leopards, Out-Of-Africa, Panthera pardus, Population Genomics







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Leopards are the only big cats still widely distributed across the continents of Africa and Asia. They occur in a wide range of habitats and are often found in close proximity to humans. But despite their ubiquity, leopard phylogeography and population history have not yet been studied with genomic tools. Here, we present population-genomic data from 26 modern and historical samples encompassing the vast geographical distribution of this species. We find that Asian leopards are broadly monophyletic with respect to African leopards across almost their entire nuclear genomes. This profound genetic pattern persists despite the animals’ high potential mobility, and despite evidence of transfer of African alleles into Middle Eastern and Central Asian leopard populations within the last 100,000 years. Our results further suggest that Asian leopards originated from a single out-of-Africa dispersal event 500–600 thousand years ago and are characterized by higher population structuring, stronger isolation by distance, and lower heterozygosity than African leopards. Taxonomic categories do not take into account the variability in depth of divergence among subspecies. The deep divergence between the African subspecies and Asian populations contrasts with the much shallower divergence among putative Asian subspecies. Reconciling genomic variation and taxonomy is likely to be a growing challenge in the genomics era.



  • African and Asian leopards are highly differentiated at the genomic level
  • Out-of-Africa dispersal involved a relatively small number of individuals
  • Leopards in Africa show higher heterozygosity and less structure than those in Asia
  • Aligning genomic data with current subspecies boundaries can be challenging



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