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High in the Himalayas, Snow Leopards Breathe like Kittens, Duquesne Researcher Finds

Endangered snow leopards seem like models of cold, high-altitude survival, despite so many odds. Yet unlike many animals that live in thin air, snow leopards have not evolved their hemoglobin proteins to carry more oxygen.

That's a new finding-and a scientific surprise-for researcher Dr. Jan Janecka, assistant professor of biology at Duquesne University. His work published in the Aug. 5 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology shows that these fierce felids breathe like every-day kitty cats.

"Changing hemoglobin is one of the simplest ways to adapt to high altitudes, where the air is thin," said Janecka, who is one of only two primary researchers in the U.S. using gene sequencing and cloning to answer scientific questions about these big cats.

But the gene sequencing that he completed using DNA samples from snow leopards in captivity shed no light on how these animals survive at high altitudes. Although the animals sampled were not in high-altitude conditions, their genes would still carry their persistent ancestral form. But he found no telling evidence of hemoglobin evolution in response to low oxygen. His collaborators, Jay Storz of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Angela Fago of Aarhaus University, Denmark, also conducted biochemical experiments and found no changes in oxygen binding.

"There is very little difference in the function of globins of the snow leopard and a house cat," he said. "However, snow leopards are highly adapted for that area; therefore there must be some other process at work. Their molecular response to the altitude must involve other responses, perhaps something physiological or another type of biochemical alteration we did not examine."

Their discovery sets the stage for more work, perhaps examining different mechanics for ventilation or ways to increase oxygen in snow leopards, lung size or different proteins at work in the respiratory system. Janecka, who has traveled to snow leopard habitats in India, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia more than dozen times in the last eight years and has been funded by the likes of National Geographic and the Snow Leopard Conservancy, is not one to leave such questions hanging.

By sequencing genomes of 10 or more snow leopards-about two years' worth of work-he hopes to be able to complete genetic comparisons between tigers and snow leopards, finding fixed differences that explain snow leopard adaptation to high-altitude.

"It will show which genes underwent changes as snow leopards evolved," he said, undaunted.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.