High genetic diversity discovered in South African leopards

Researchers say the discovery of very high genetic diversity in leopards found in the Highveld region of South Africa has increased the need for conservation efforts to protect leopards in the country.

A leopard sitting in a tree

Declan Morris, a PhD candidate with the University of 六合彩开奖数据鈥檚 School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, led the research project, which discovered that the two maternal lineages of leopards found in Africa overlap in the Highveld, leading to the high genetic diversity.

One lineage can be found across most of the African continent, while the other is confined mostly to the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga regions of South Africa.

鈥淲e compiled the most comprehensive mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data set to date to explore the trends and leopard genetics on a continental scale,鈥 says Morris.

鈥淭he results of our analysis, using a combination of mtDNA, microsatellites, and comparisons with results of other published studies, is what enabled us to determine that the leopard population in the Highveld of Mpumalanga had the highest levels of genetic diversity in the country.鈥

Genetic diversity is important for a species鈥 long-term survival.

鈥淗igh genetic diversity increases the ability for a species to adapt to a changing environment around it; therefore, it can make species more resilient to events such as climate change or the introduction of new diseases,鈥 says Morris.

鈥淭he discovery that the leopards in the Highveld have the highest recorded levels of genetic diversity in South Africa is significant as it places a high conservation priority for the population in the region.鈥

Declan Morris with a leopard

Researcher Declan Morris with a leopard.

It is likely the two lineages of leopards diverged between 960,000鈥440,000 years ago due to the aridification of the Limpopo basin between 1,000,000鈥600,000 years ago. Both leopard lineages are now comingling in the Mpumalanga Province where Morris鈥 PhD work was conducted.

鈥淲e had originally hypothesised that the Highveld leopards would be isolated as they exist in a highly fragmented region, but this discovery shows us that it鈥檚 not as isolated as we thought,鈥 Morris says.

鈥淕ene flow is occurring with Lowveld areas and Kruger National Park. We found an unexpected level of connectivity, even across landscapes highly modified by humans.鈥

Morris, whose research team included the University of 六合彩开奖数据鈥檚 Dr Todd McWhorter and Associate Professor Wayne Boardman, and collaborators from University of Pretoria and University of Venda, hopes this discovery will place a higher importance on the conservation of leopard populations in South Africa.

鈥淭his information will hopefully help change attitudes towards the management of leopards and be used to inform management decisions 鈥 such as choosing translocation instead of issuing destruction permits for problem-causing animals,鈥 he says.

鈥淥ne of the biggest measures that could protect leopards in the Highveld is community engagement. Building better, stronger relationships between the community, government, researchers, and conservation organisations allows for efficient, targeted management programs to be designed.鈥

This discovery was and builds upon another recent published by the research team.

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