The Bornean Clouded leopard, discovered to be an entirely new species, is the latest in a growing list of animals and plants unique to the Southeast Asian country's rainforest and illustrates the need to preserve the area, conservationists said on Thursday.
Genetic tests by researchers at the US National Cancer Institute revealed that the clouded leopard of Borneo and Sumatra islands is a unique cat species and not the same one found in mainland Southeast Asia as long believed, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the global conservation organisation, has stated.
"This is a very secretive cat, it spends most of it's time in tree canopies on the island of Borneo. It's not very often seen, so in some ways it's not surprising that recent DNA tests have shown that it is a completely new species," said WWF's Stuart Chapman
Chapman works for WWF's Heart of Borneo programme which is dedicated to preserving the flora and fauna in the deep jungles on Borneo.
The secretive clouded leopards are the biggest predators on Borneo, growing sometimes to the size of a small panther.
They have the longest canine teeth relative to body size of any cat.
The news about the clouded leopard comes just a few weeks after a WWF report showed that scientists had identified at least 52 new species of animals and plants over the past year on Borneo.
The Heart of Borneo, a mountainous region about five times the size of Switzerland covered with equatorial rainforest in the centre of the island, is the last great forest home of the Bornean Clouded Leopard.
Researchers believe that the Borneo population of the clouded leopard likely diverged from the mainland population some 1.4 (m) million years ago.
Over the millennia, at least 40 differences emerged between the two species, making them as distinct as other large cat species such as lions, tigers and jaguars.
The results of the genetic study are supported by separate research on geographical variation in the clouded leopard, based mainly on fur patterns and coloration of skins held in museums and collections.
The Borneo clouded leopard is darker than the mainland species and has many distinct spots within its small cloud markings.
It also has a greyer fur, and a double dorsal stripe. Clouded leopards from the mainland have fewer and fainter markings within large clouds on their skin.
A total of five-thousand to 11-thousand Bornean Clouded leopards are estimated to live in the jungles of Borneo.
The total number in Sumatra could be in the range of three-thousand to seven-thousand individuals.
The cats' biggest threat is destruction of their habitat.