Skip to main content
Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

African and Asian leopards are highly differentiated at the genomic level

Paijmans, Johanna L. A.; Barlow, Axel; Becker, Matthew S.; Cahill, James A.; Fickel, Joerns; Foerster, Daniel W. G.; Gries, Katrin; Hartmann, Stefanie; Havmoller, Rasmus Worsoe; Henneberger, Kirstin; Kern, Christian; Kitchener, Andrew C.; Lorenzen, Eline D.; Mayer, Frieder; OBrien, Stephen J.; von Seth, Johanna; Sinding, Mikkel-Holder S.; Spong, Goran; Uphyrkina, Olga; Wachter, Bettina;
Show more authors


Leopards are the only big cats still widely distributed across the continents of Africa and Asia. They occur in a wide range of habitats and are often found in close proximity to humans. But despite their ubiquity, leopard phylogeography and population history have not yet been studied with genomic tools. Here, we present population-genomic data from 26 modern and historical samples encompassing the vast geographical distribution of this species. We find that Asian leopards are broadly monophyletic with respect to African leopards across almost their entire nuclear genomes. This profound genetic pattern persists despite the animals' high potential mobility, and despite evidence of transfer of African alleles into Middle Eastern and Central Asian leopard populations within the last 100,000 years. Our results further suggest that Asian leopards originated from a single out-of-Africa dispersal event 500-600 thousand years ago and are characterized by higher population structuring, stronger isolation by distance, and lower heterozygosity than African leopards. Taxonomic categories do not take into account the variability in depth of divergence among subspecies. The deep divergence between the African subspecies and Asian populations contrasts with the much shallower divergence among putative Asian subspecies. Reconciling genomic variation and taxonomy is likely to be a growing challenge in the genomics era.

Published in

Current Biology
2021, volume: 31, number: 9, pages: 1872-1882
Publisher: CELL PRESS

Authors' information

Paijmans, Johanna L. A.
University of Leicester
Barlow, Axel
University of Potsdam
Becker, Matthew S.
Zambian Carnivore Programme
Cahill, James A.
University of Florida
Fickel, Joerns
University of Potsdam
Foerster, Daniel W. G.
Leibniz Institut fur Zoo und Wildtierforschung
Gries, Katrin
Grune Zoo Wuppertal
Hartmann, Stefanie
University of Potsdam
Havmoller, Rasmus Worsoe
University of Copenhagen
Henneberger, Kirstin
University of Potsdam
Kern, Christian
Tierpk Berlin Friedrichsfelde
Kitchener, Andrew C.
University of Edinburgh
Lorenzen, Eline D.
University of Copenhagen
Mayer, Frieder
Leibniz Institut fur Evolutions und Biodiversitatsforschung
OBrien, Stephen J.
Nova Southeastern University
von Seth, Johanna
Swedish Museum of Natural History
Sinding, Mikkel-Holder S.
University of Copenhagen
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Environmental Studies
Uphyrkina, Olga
Russian Academy of Sciences
Wachter, Bettina
Leibniz Institut fur Zoo und Wildtierforschung
Show more authors

UKÄ Subject classification

Evolutionary Biology

Publication Identifiers


URI (permanent link to this page)