Borneo's clouded leopard identified as new cat species

Posted on 15 March 2007

Just weeks after a WWF report identified at least 52 new species of animals and plants over the past year on Borneo, scientists have discovered that the clouded leopard found on the island, as well as on Sumatra, is an entirely new species of cat.
Gland, Switzerland – Scientists have discovered that the clouded leopard found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is an entirely new species of cat. The secretive rainforest animal was originally thought to be the same species as the one found in mainland South-east Asia.

The news comes just a few weeks after a WWF report showed that scientists had identified at least 52 new species of animals and plants over the past year on Borneo.

“Who said a leopard can never change its spots?" said Stuart Chapman, WWF International Coordinator of the Heart of Borneo programme.

"For over a hundred years we have been looking at this animal and never realized it was unique. The fact that Borneo’s top predator is now considered a separate species further emphasizes the importance of conserving one of the most biologically diverse habitats on Earth.”

Researchers at the US National Cancer Institute say the differences between the Borneo and mainland clouded leopard were found to be comparable to the differences between other large cat species such as lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard. They believe the Borneo population likely diverged from the mainland population some 1.4 million years ago.

“Genetic research results clearly indicate that the clouded leopards of Borneo should be considered a separate species,” said Dr Stephen O'Brien, Head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, US National Cancer Institute. “DNA tests highlighted around 40 differences between the two species.”

The results of the genetic study are supported by separate research on geographical variation in the clouded leopard, based mainly on fur patterns and colouration of skins held in museums and collections.

“The moment we started comparing the skins of the mainland clouded leopard with the leopard found on Borneo, it was clear we were comparing two different species,” said Dr Andrew Kitchener, Department of Natural Sciences, National Museums Scotland. “It’s incredible that no one has ever noticed these differences.”

The Borneo clouded leopard has small cloud markings, many distinct spots within the cloud markings, grey fur and a double dorsal stripe. It is darker than the mainland species.

Clouded leopards from the mainland have large clouds on their skin with fewer, often faint, spots within the cloud markings. They are lighter in colour, with a tendency toward tawny-coloured fur and a partial double dorsal stripe.

By taking into consideration the forest conditions in Borneo, a total number of 5,000 to 11,000 Bornean clouded leopards are estimated to live there. The total number in Sumatra could be in the range of 3,000 to 7,000 individuals. However, further studies are needed to obtain better population data.

The last great forest home of the Bornean clouded leopard is the Heart of Borneo, a 220,000km2 wild, mountainous region — about five times the size of Switzerland — covered with equatorial rainforest in the centre of the island. Destruction of their habitat is the main threat they face.

Last month in Bali (Indonesia), the ministers of the three Bornean governments — Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia — signed an historic declaration to conserve and sustainably manage the Heart of Borneo. This has put the area on the global stage of conservation priorities.


• Based on their general physical appearance, all clouded leopards were considered to belong to a single species. However, recent genetic analysis has shown that the ones found on Borneo are so different that they are best regarded as a separate species. DNA tests highlighted around 40 nucleotide differences between the two species. This is comparable to differences between the large Panthera species. Lions and leopards, for instance, have 56 nucleotide differences. The combined results of DNA analysis point to a 1–3 million years difference in separation, while the accepted distance of species is 1–2 million years.

• The clouded leopard was first scientifically described in 1821 by the British naturalist Edward Griffith. The scientific name of the clouded leopard from the mainland is Neofelis nebulosa, while the Bornean clouded leopard is now called Neofelis diardi.

• Clouded leopards occur in most forested habitats of Borneo, from coastal areas to the interior mountain ranges. Their preferred habitats, where most animals are found, are the dense lowland and hill rainforests of Borneo. They usually avoid open areas with few trees and are very sensitive to human disturbances.

• Bornean clouded leopards feed on monkeys, mouse deer, barking deer, young bearded pigs and sambar deer, which are stalked on the ground or jumped upon from tree branches. Occasionally birds and reptiles (such as monitor lizards) are eaten as well.

For further information:
Olivier van Bogaert, Senior Press Officer
WWF International
Tel: +41 22 364 9554

Stuart Chapman, Heart of Borneo Programme Coordinator
WWF International
Bornean clouded leopard. Kalimantan and Sumatra, Indonesia.
© WWF / Alain Compost
Dense forest landscape of the northeast tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the habitat of the endemic Bornean Pygmy elephant (<i>Elephas maximus borneensis</i>). Sabah, North Borneo, Malaysia.
Dense forest landscape of the northeast tip of Borneo, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the habitat of the endemic Bornean Pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis). Sabah, North Borneo, Malaysia.
© WWF / A. Christy WILLIAMS
'Heart of Borneo' initiative