A young male leopard stops for a late-night drink at Bitterpan waterhole, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. Photograph: Prof Yoshan Moodley.

Few animals in the world are as charismatic as the leopard (Panthera pardus). Perhaps it is because the leopard belongs to a select group of only five species known as the big cats. On the other hand, it may be because the leopard is the second-most widely distributed large mammal on earth, with the first being humans. Or perhaps it is because leopards and humans both evolved in Africa and since we are among the continent’s top predators, our paths have been intertwined with each other for more than a million years.

Today, an important study on African leopard genetics has been published in the journal PeerJ by a team of international scientists led by Professor Yoshan Moodley of the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Agriculture at the University of Venda and Dr Declan Morris of the University of Adelaide, Australia. The team investigated mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed on by females, and found that all African leopards belong to one of two maternal DNA lines, which diverged from each other during the middle Pleistocene Epoch, between 450 – 960 thousand years ago. Importantly, one of these maternal lines is found mainly in Southern Africa and is the only line present in leopards of the Cape, Kwazulu-Natal and the Mpumalanga Highveld. From this curious distribution of maternal DNA, the team was able to figure out that leopards must have been isolated in South Africa during the harsh and dry conditions of the late Pleistocene. However, in the last 10-15
thousand years the climate has become milder, and so both leopard maternal lines have come back into contact with each other in the Lowveld region around the Kruger National Park.
Although the study suggests that leopards inhabiting most of South Africa could have evolved differently to those in the rest of Africa, these results must still be confirmed with nuclear DNA data, which is inherited by both sexes. The team is presently working on such a follow-up study, and if their results are similar, it could mean the discovery of a new leopard population that is unique to South Africa.
You can read more about this ground-breaking study by following the link below to the article on the PeerJ website: https://peerj.com/articles/17018/. Alternatively, you can download the article directly through this link: https://peerj.com/articles/17018.pdf.

Issued by:
Department of Marketing, Branding and Communication
University of Venda
Tel: (015) 962 8525 / 8710
Date: 11 April 2023

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