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South Africa's leopards have the highest genetic diversity

In the heart of South Africa, researchers have made a remarkable revelation about leopards that challenges our previous understanding of their genetic diversity.

This discovery highlights significant genetic richness, altering perceptions of leopard populations in the area. It underscores the critical importance of ongoing conservation efforts to protect these majestic creatures and their habitat.

Declan Morris, a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide‘s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, led a pivotal research project. His work revealed a surprising level of genetic diversity among leopards in South Africa’s Highveld region.

This significant finding illuminates the complex evolutionary history of these leopards. It also underscores the urgent need for conservation efforts to safeguard their future.

Two lineages, one region

The newfound genetic diversity in Highveld leopards stems from the convergence of two distinct maternal lineages. One lineage spans the majority of the African continent, showcasing a broad genetic base.

The other is more localized, found primarily in South Africa’s Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and Mpumalanga. This unexpected overlap in the Highveld region forms a unique genetic melting pot, enriching the genetic diversity of the local leopard population.

“We compiled the most comprehensive mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data set to date to explore the trends and leopard genetics on a continental scale,” Morris explains.

“The 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.”

Why leopard’s genetic diversity matters

Genetic diversity is a critical factor in the long-term survival of any species. It serves as a reservoir of adaptability, enabling populations to cope with environmental changes, diseases, and other challenges. In the case of leopards, high genetic diversity translates to a greater ability to adapt to shifting climates, habitat alterations, and emerging threats.

“High 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,” says Morris.

“The 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.”

Leopard divergence and genetic reunion

Researchers believe the two leopard lineages diverged between 960,000 and 440,000 years ago. They attribute this separation to the aridification of the Limpopo Basin, which likely served as a barrier between the two groups.

Now, after hundreds of thousands of years, these lineages are reuniting in the Mpumalanga Province, where Morris’s research was conducted. This unexpected reunion highlights the dynamic nature of leopard populations and the interconnectedness of their habitats.

Challenging assumptions and embracing connectivity

The discovery of high genetic diversity in the Highveld leopards challenges previous assumptions about their isolation. Initially, researchers hypothesized that the fragmented nature of the region would lead to genetic isolation.

The findings from the study reveal a surprising degree of connectivity between the Highveld leopards and those in the Lowveld areas and Kruger National Park. Despite geographical separations, these populations maintain genetic links, indicating a more interconnected ecosystem than previously thought. This connectivity enhances the genetic flow and diversity among the leopard populations across these regions.

“We 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’s not as isolated as we thought,” says Morris.

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

Conservation implications

The implications of this discovery for leopard conservation are profound. By recognizing the Highveld’s exceptional genetic diversity, conservationists and policymakers can better prioritize their efforts. This may involve habitat preservation, anti-poaching initiatives, and community engagement programs.

“One 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,” notes Morris.

The research highlights the critical role of scientific inquiry in understanding and conserving our planet’s biodiversity. The unexpected genetic diversity of South African leopards reminds us that nature can connect and adapt even in fragmented landscapes.

By continuing to explore the intricate relationships between species and their environments, we gather valuable insights. These insights guide us toward a more sustainable future for all living beings.

The study is published in the journal PeerJ.


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