Arabian leopard genome sequenced

The leopard is one of them most iconic and well-known species at the moment. It is a predator that throughout history has managed to adapt to a variety of different ecosystems in Africa, Europe and Asia. Despite being so iconic, we actually know very little about this species. Of its eight current subspecies, the Arabian leopard is one of the least studied (Panthera pardus nimr).

This critically endangered subspecies has only 250 copies spread throughout Saudi Arabia, Yemen and southern Oman. However, due to its geographic location between the two main groups of leopards (Africa and Asia), it is a key population for understanding the evolutionary history of these cats.

Now an international team led by Institute for Evolutionary Biology (IBE), a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research and the University of Pompeu Fabra, has compiled the largest leopard genome database to date. The team analyzed the entire genomes of two specimens of Arabian leopards and provided worrying data about their genetic decline.

The species is critically endangered and there are only 250 specimens distributed across Saudi Arabia, Yemen and southern Oman.

Research clarifies that Evolutionary history of the leopard, and confirms that the Arabian leopard is a genetically distinct subspecies and is critically endangered. The study also lays the groundwork for conservation of populations of this endangered feline species using available genomic information.

The genome analyzes of Nuclear DNA from two individuals suggest that the Arabian leopard is a sister group to the Asiatic leopard. The study contradicts previous studies based on the analysis of the shorter and exclusively maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA, which had observed a greater relationship with the African leopard – the other large group. The results of the study suggest that the Arabian leopard may have initiated the leopard expansion after “Far away from Africa” towards the rest of the Asian continent and perhaps Europe.

Lineage analysis has confirmed that the Arabian leopard is a genetically distinct subspecies, which is of particular importance for guiding conservation efforts.

The decline of the species is reflected in its genes

The team identified clear signs of extinction in the cat’s genes. “The biggest threat to a species’ future is the loss of genetic diversity,” he says. Salvador Carranza, responsible for the study and principal investigator of the IBE. “Populations of the Arabian leopard are declining and their high level of isolation has led to inbreeding, which threatens their viability,” he adds.

The lack of genetic diversity makes the population more vulnerable to environmental changes or the emergence of new diseases like Covid

Gabriel Mochales, IBE researcher

According to the study, the observed lack of genetic diversity is the result of recent population decline.

“These could be caused by the aridity of the environment and human activities that have caused their habitat to deteriorate,” he adds. Gabriel Mochales, first author of the study and PhD student at the IBE. Due to the genetic diversity of the analyzed individuals, this Arabian subspecies resembles the Asiatic Javan leopard (Panthera pardus melas), a small population characterized by their strict insular isolation. “The lack of genetic diversity makes the population more vulnerable to environmental changes or the emergence of new diseases like Covid,” says Mochales.

The study involved the comparative genomics group led by Professor ICREA. Tomàs Marquès-Bonet of the IBE, also professor at the UPF.

Without genomics there is no conservation

Various leopard conservation programs are currently underway in the Arabian Peninsula. However, these captive breeding programs do not consider genomic data. “With this study, we laid the foundation for a genome-based conservation strategy for the critically endangered Arabian leopard,” says Carranza, senior researcher in the Reptile and Amphibian Systematics, Biogeography and Evolution group.

With this study, we have laid the foundation for a genome-based conservation strategy for the critically endangered Arabian leopard.

Salvador Carranza, IBE researcher

“Genetic analyzes in threatened populations are essential to assess their vulnerability to extinction and to guide conservation efforts,” adds Mochales.

“Future efforts will be made to sequence all species and subspecies as encouraged by the… Earth Biogenome Project (EBP)He European Reference Genome Atlas (ERGA) and that Catalan Biogenome Project (CBP), “They will be key to protecting the global heritage of all genomes on the planet,” concludes Carranza.


Salvador Carranza et al. “Genomics reveals introgression and eradication of deleterious mutations in Arabian leopard“.iScience

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