May 11 (UPI) -- The snow leopard species is comprised of three sub-species, according to new research.
An international team of scientists used a noninvasive scat survey to collect DNA and sequence the genome of the snow leopard, Panthera uncia. The snow leopard is an elusive predator, native to the mountains of Central and South Asia.
The results of the genomic survey suggest the species features three distinct genetic clusters, each organized by geographic confines. The northern group, Panthera uncia irbis, found in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. The central group, Panthera uncia uncioides, roams the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau. The western group, Panthera uncia uncia, is found among the peaks of Tian Shan and Pamir mountains.
The northern group appears to be isolated by the presence of the Gobi Desert, while the southern and western groups are split by trans-Himalayan desert basins.
Trapping, tagging and tracking snow leopards in the wild is extremely difficult, as the predators -- one of the Big Five cats -- occupy habitat where temperatures and weather conditions are extreme and oxygen levels are often low.
Researchers detailed their findings in the Journal of Heredity. Their efforts mark the most comprehensive gene survey of the species to date.
"This study is important as it provides the first glimpse of how snow leopard populations are structured and connected, in a nutshell, populations that are connected with other populations, are more stable and have a greater chance of persisting," lead researcher Jan E. Janecka, a biologist at Duquesne University, said in a news release.
Researchers hope that with an improved understanding of the snow leopard's evolution and ecology, they can improve conservation efforts.
"Our study highlights the need for transboundary initiatives to protect this species, and other wildlife in Asia," Janecka said.