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Clouded leopard: First film of new Asia big cat species

by Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

The Sundaland clouded leopard, a recently described new species of big cat, has been caught on camera.

The film, the first footage of the cat in the wild to be made public, has been released by scientists working in the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Malaysia.

The Sundaland clouded leopard, only discovered to be a distinct species three years ago, is one of the least known and elusive of all cat species.

Two more rare cats, the flat-headed cat and bay cat, were also photographed.

Details of the discoveries are published in the latest issue of Cat News, the newsletter of the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“Clouded leopards are one of the most elusive cats. They are very hardly ever encountered and almost no detailed study about their ecology has been conducted,” says Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany.

Mr Wilting is leader of a project that evaluates how changes to the forest in the Malaysian part of Borneo impact carnivores living there.

As part of that project, the team places a network of camera traps in the forest, that automatically photograph passing animals.

The team, which includes the Malaysian field scientist Azlan Mohamed, also conducts regular surveys at night, by shining a spotlight from the back of a vehicle driven around the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Sabah.

During one of these surveys, they encountered a Sundaland clouded leopard walking along a road.

“For the first eleven months we had not encountered a single clouded leopard during these night surveys,” says Mr Wilting.

“So every one of our team was very surprised when this clouded leopard was encountered.

“Even more surprising was that this individual was not scared by the light or the noises of the truck.

“For over five minutes this clouded leopard was just roaming around the car, which compared to the encounters with the other animals is very strange, as most species are scared and run away after we have spotted them.”

Film exists of a Sundaland clouded leopard held in an enclosure.

And a tourist is thought to have taken a 30 second video of a wild Sundaland clouded leopard in 2006, but that video has never been made public.

Until 2007, all clouded leopards living in Asia were thought to belong to a single species.

However, genetic studies revealed that there are actually two quite distinct clouded leopard species.

As well as the better known clouded leopard living on the Asian mainland ( Neofelis nebulosa ), scientists determined that a separate clouded leopard species lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

The two species are thought to have diverged over one million years ago.

This leopard is now known as the Sunda or Sundaland clouded leopard ( Neofelis diardi ), though it was previously and erroneously called the Bornean clouded leopard.

Since 2008, it has been listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

The clouded leopard, the largest predator on Borneo, appears to live at very low densities within the reserve, as it has only rarely been photographed by the researchers or camera traps.

During the surveys, the research team also discovered a juvenile samba deer ( Cervus unicolor ) which had been killed by a clouded leopard.

The scientists suspect a large male clouded leopard made the kill, and had removed part of the front right leg.

Despite being a commercial forest that is sustainably logged for wood, the Dermakot Forest Reserve in Sabah, which is an area of approximately 550km square kilometres, holds all five wild Bornean cat species.

As well as capturing images of the clouded leopard, the researchers also recorded four other wild cat species.

One video shows a wild leopard cat scent-marking its territory.

This smaller species is more common in the area, and has been filmed before.

“But due to its mainly nocturnal behaviour, specific behaviours like the scent marking are rarely documented on camera,” says Mr Wilting.

More thrilling are the pictures taken of the other cats: the flat-headed cat ( Prionailurus planiceps ), bay cat ( Catopuma badia ) and marbled cat ( Pardofelis marmorata ).

“All three species are very special,” says Mr Wilting.

“The bay cat was special, as there has never been a confirmed record of this species in our study site.

“Therefore I really did not expect to get a photo of this species and I was amazed when I saw this picture.”

Since 1928, there had been no confirmed record of this cat, before it was rediscovered in 1992 in Sarawak.

It is currently considered to be one of the world’s least known cat species, and is listed as endangered.

“In addition our record is the most northern record of this species, which is endemic to Borneo.”

Specialised climber

“Also the records of the flat-headed cat are very special as well, because just a few camera-trapping pictures of this species exist,” explains Mr Wilting.

“The flat-headed cat is a highly specialised cat, restricted to lowland forests and wetlands, those areas which have the highest destruction rates in Asia.

“This was also the reason why we changed the classification in the red list in 2008 from vulnerable to endangered, which puts this species in the same category as the tiger.

“The marbled cat is presumably mainly arboreal and therefore it is much harder to get this species photographed with the ground-based cameras.”

The marbled cat looks much like a miniature clouded leopard, with a cloud-like spot pattern and long tail.

“We have encountered this species twice during our night surveys in Deramakot and once we even observed it climbing headfirst down the tree-trunk.

“These cats have really amazing climbing skills.”

Mr Wilting says that finding all five Bornean cat species in one area suggests that Dermakot Forest Reserve is home to a particularly high diversity of animals, especially as Borneo is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

It also suggests that even commercially used forests, as long as they are managed sustainably, may harbour threatened cat species and therefore contribute to their conservation, he says.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8505000/8505785.stm

Published: 2010/02/10 09:12:29 GMT

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