Genetic and skin tests on the creature, now dubbed the Bornean clouded leopard, or Neofelis diardi, suggest it is unique.
The leopard is almost as different from clouded leopards found on the Asian mainland as lions are from tigers, the global nature protection body WWF reports.
“For over 100 years we have been looking at this animal and never realised that it was unique,” says Stuart Chapman, coordinator of a WWF program that aims to preserve the vast rainforests in a region known as the Heart of Borneo.
The announcement follows a December report from WWF saying dozens of new animal, fish, plant and tree species had recently been found on Borneo, one of the world’s last frontiers for biodiversity but under threat from deforestation.
Clouded leopards were first described scientifically in 1821 by UK naturalist Edward Griffith and were given the official name Neofelis nebulosa.
Until now, the mainland and island animals were believed to be a single species.
But DNA tests at the US National Cancer Institute, WWF says, found some 40 genetic differences, indicating that they had diverged about 1.4 million years ago.
By comparison, the WWF says, there are 56 genetic differences between lions and the common leopard.
The US researchers’ conclusions, it adds, are backed up by results of studies of skin colour and fur patterns by biologists working for National Museums Scotland.
There are believed to be between 5000 and 11,000 island clouded leopards in Borneo and between 3000 and 7000 in Sumatra.
Each animal has small cloud markings, a double stripe down its back, with its greyer fur darker than the mainland species, the WWF says.
The mainland leopard, which is found from Nepal to southern China and throughout Southeast Asia, has large clouds on the skin with fewer spots inside, only a partial dorsal stripe and tawny-coloured fur.
The Borneo leopard, says WWF, is the main predator on the island. It feeds on monkeys, small deer, birds and lizards, and has the longest canine teeth relative to size of any cat.
It is spread across most forested areas, from coastal areas to interior mountain ranges. But it prefers dense lowland and hillside rainforest where its natural prey is largely found.
Its last great forest home is the Heart of Borneo, a wild mountainous region of 220,000 square kilometres, in the centre of the island, which governments last month pledged to protect.
Cross posted from here