Range-wide snow leopard phylogeography supports three subspecies

Jan E. Janecka, Yuguang Zhang, Diqiang Li, Bariushaa Munkhtsog, Munkhtsog Bayaraa, Naranbaatar Galsandorj, Tshewang R. Wangchuk, Dibesh Karmacharya, Juan Li, Zhi Lu, Kubanychbek Zhumabai Uulu, Ajay Gaur, Satish Kumar, Kesav Kumar, Shafqat Hussain, Ghulam Muhammad, Matthew Jevit, Charlotte Hacker, Pamela Burger, Claudia WultschMary J. Janecka, Kristofer Helgen, William J. Murphy, Rodney Jackson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

54 Citations (Scopus)


The snow leopard, Panthera uncia, is an elusive high-Altitude specialist that inhabits vast, inaccessible habitat across Asia. We conducted the first range-wide genetic assessment of snow leopards based on noninvasive scat surveys. Thirty-Three microsatellites were genotyped and a total of 683 bp of mitochondrial DNA sequenced in 70 individuals. Snow leopards exhibited low genetic diversity at microsatellites (AN = 5.8, HO = 0.433, HE = 0.568), virtually no mtDNA variation, and underwent a bottleneck in the Holocene (∼8000 years ago) coinciding with increased temperatures, precipitation, and upward treeline shift in the Tibetan Plateau. Multiple analyses supported 3 primary genetic clusters: (1) Northern (the Altai region), (2) Central (core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau), and (3) Western (Tian Shan, Pamir, trans-Himalaya regions). Accordingly, we recognize 3 subspecies, Panthera uncia irbis (Northern group), Panthera uncia uncia (Western group), and Panthera uncia uncioides (Central group) based upon genetic distinctness, low levels of admixture, unambiguous population assignment, and geographic separation. The patterns of variation were consistent with desert-basin "barrier effects" of the Gobi isolating the northern subspecies (Mongolia), and the trans-Himalaya dividing the central (Qinghai, Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal) and western subspecies (India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan). Hierarchical Bayesian clustering analysis revealed additional subdivision into a minimum of 6 proposed management units: western Mongolia, southern Mongolia, Tian Shan, Pamir-Himalaya, Tibet-Himalaya, and Qinghai, with spatial autocorrelation suggesting potential connectivity by dispersing individuals up to ∼400 km. We provide a foundation for global conservation of snow leopard subspecies, and set the stage for in-depth landscape genetics and genomic studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-607
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Heredity
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Asia
  • Genetics
  • Microsatellites
  • Panthera uncia
  • Phylogeography
  • Snow leopard
  • Subspecies


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