Scientists have previously assumed that snow leopards, or Panthera uncial, are monotypic, which means a genus with only one species. However, a new study has revealed that the elusive big cats have three sub-species.

The study, published in the journal Heredity, showed that snow leopards have three primary genetic clusters differentiated by their geographical location.

"This study is important as it provides the first glimpse of how snow leopard populations are structured and connected," said Dr. Jan Janeska, Assistant Professor at Duquesne University' Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and lead author of the study, in a press release. "In a nutshell, populations that are connected with other populations are more stable and have a greater chance of persisting."

For the study, the researchers conducted a range-wide genetic assessment of snow leopards based on non-invasive scat surveys. Genetic samples were collected through scat along wildlife trails and marking sites.

The researchers found that snow leopards have three primary genetic clusters that can be differentiated by their geographical location. These genetic clusters of snow leopards include the Northern group (Panthera uncia irbis), the Central group (Panthera uncia uncioides) and the Western group (Panthera uncia uncial).

The Northern group is found in the Altai region. On the other hand, the Central group populates the core Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, while the Western group roams in the Tian Shan, Pamir and trans-Himalaya regions.

The desert basins in the area create a so-called "barrier effect" that influences the pattern of variations among the three snow leopard sub-species. The Northern group is isolated by the Gobi desert, while the Central and Western sub-species were divided by the trans-Himalayas.

Snow leopards are considered to be the most elusive big cats in the world. They strive in high-altitude areas with low oxygen levels, extreme temperatures, harsh climactic conditions, low productivity and aridity. They inhabit a vast area of 1.6 million square kilometers across 12 counties in Asia. Snow leopards can be usually found in mountains that have above 3,000 meters of elevation.