Snow leopards and tigers “sister species”

Siberian tigers also live in snow. But many other tigers live in jungles and tropical climates. Photo Wikipedia.

Scientists have conducted a DNA analysis of the big cats and found the tiger and snow leopard are “sister species”. Brian Davis, Dr. Gang Li and professor William Murphy published their findings in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution recently.

It has long been known that the five species of big cat, the tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar and snow leopard, which belong to the Panthera genus, and the two species of clouded leopard, are more closely related to each other than to other smaller cats. But the exact relationships between them have been hard to identify.

19th century painting of a tiger by Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Photo Wikipedia.

The researchers looked at differences and similarities between the big cats species in terms of the genetic information stored in their mitochondrial DNA, and the gender chromosomes. They found lions, leopards and jaguars were found to be the most tightly linked, with a common ancestor probably living about 4.3 to 3.8 million years ago.

But also at this same time (around 4 million years ago) the common ancestor of snow leopards and tigers appeared.

Today sadly both these beautiful cats have another thing in common – they are among the world’s most endangered big cats. Fewer than 3500 tigers are thought to survive in the wild and estimates for snow leopards vary from 3500 to 5000.

This year, the Chinese Year of the Tiger, is an opportunity to help protect both these cats and learn more about them and their habitat.

See more on the BBC website.

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