Phylogeography and spatial modeling of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in sub-Saharan Africa

Corey Anco, Fordham University


The leopard, Panthera pardus, is a large, wide-ranging carnivore that is rapidly disappearing from its once contiguous and expansive historic range. Research supports the theory that wide-ranging species exhibiting discontinuity within their range are likely to exhibit variation at the molecular level; patterns of genetic diversity tend to correspond to distinct geographic regions. This study explores previous research used to describe leopard taxonomy and uses new data with an emphasis on museum-based collections to reassess genetic diversity and status of African leopards. Mitochondrial analyses revealed the spatial aggregation of genetically distinct populations of leopards in at least four large geographic regions across sub-Saharan Africa. Populations in West and Coastal-West-Central Africa exhibited levels of genetic divergence comparable to currently recognized subspecies in the Middle East (Arabian, P. p. nimr) and Southwest Asia (Persian, P. p. saxicolor). Star-like phylogeny surrounding the dominant haplotype in Central-East Africa and connecting to each other population suggests origin of the ancestral matrilineage. Species distribution modeling software was used to explore the availability of suitable leopard habitat across continental Africa. Model predictions of habitat suitability were relatively close to expert delineated leopard ranges. Leopard habitat was found to be closely correlated with NDVI, a direct measurement of primary productivity, and an indirect measurement of habitat, forest cover, and prey availability. Minimal habitat was predicted within protected areas highlighting the importance and need of leopard and wildlands conservation outside of protected areas. This study has laid the foundation for reassessing the taxonomic status of the African leopard by providing firm evidence against the leopard as panmictic across Africa. Furthermore, this study provides insight into possible explanatory variables useful to conservationists and wildlife managers when evaluating and assessing potentially viable leopard habitat.

Subject Area

Ecology|Genetics|Geographic information science

Recommended Citation

Anco, Corey, "Phylogeography and spatial modeling of the leopard (Panthera pardus) in sub-Saharan Africa" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10192517.