Jurassic meow? Scientists at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, have come up with a novel idea for possibly saving endangered big cats: reproduce them in the lab. And the researchers have already accomplished the first step, creating embryonic stem-like cells from the tissue of an endangered adult snow leopard (Panthera uncia). The research was published in the January 2012 issue of Theriogenology.

Rajneesh Verma, a PhD student at Monash, told the Study Melbourne blog that he was inspired by fleeting childhood glimpses of tigers in the jungles of India and the plight these big cats currently face from poachers. "People are trying to save the habitat but poachers are still there, so we need a new solution. No one has successfully used assisted-reproduction for tigers, leopard and jaguar, but I had to give it a go. Hopefully, in [the] future I would be able to use these cells to help preserve these wild cats."

Verma visited Australia's Mogo Zoo, where he took tissue samples from the ears of a snow leopard, Bengal tiger, jaguar and serval. He and his fellow researchers then used the snow leopard cells to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, also known as embryonic stem-like cells. Verma said these cells can be used either for cloning or to grow eggs or sperm in a lab. The cells could also be stored in cryopreservation for future use when eggs and sperm are too difficult to collect or freeze.

"The power of stem cells is that they can differentiate into all the cell types in the body," Verma said in a prepared release. "This means, they have the potential to become gametes. In fact, mouse iPS cells have given rise to entire offspring, so the possibilities are enormous."

Of course, the plan is theoretical thus far. And snow leopards—with 3,500 to 7,000 animals left in the wild—are not so endangered that an approach like this is immediately necessary to keep them from extinction. But as the Web site Wildlife News points out, techniques such as reproduction with iPS cells could be used when a species is down to its last few members and breeding options are few and far between.

In other snow leopard news, a research team working with the organizations Fauna and Flora International and Panthera has used camera traps to capture photos of the elusive felines in the mountains of Tajikistan, across the border from Afghanistan. The team lost one of its 11 cameras to a curious cub in the process. The researchers say that immediate conservation efforts are needed to protect the snow leopards in this region from poachers.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo: Rofanator via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license