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Scientists map the genomes of big cats for first time

New genetic research helps to explain big cats' size and diet, and could provide helpful data for conservationists.

Siberian tigerEnlarge
A Siberian tiger pictured at a zoo in France on June 5, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

Geneticists have mapped the genome of the Siberian tiger and four other big cat species for the first time, in a scientific leap that may help conservationists save these disappearing animals.

A team from the Personal Genomics Institute in South Korea decoded the genome of the massive Siberian tiger, then compared these deciphered genes against those of the snow leopard, an African lion, a white Bengal tiger, and a white African lion. 

The study, published in the Nature Communications journal, found genetic signatures in big cats that seem to represent molecular adaptations responsible for their strictly carnivorous diets and massive size, relative to their smaller feline cousins. 

The researchers found that the entire cat family appears to share a set of 1,376 genes linked to muscular development and a penchant for protein-rich foods, genes which may have originated with the earliest ancestor of big cats. 

More from GlobalPost: Bengal tiger census under way in Nepal and India 

"I take this to indicate that [big cats] have evolved to fill a very particular carnivorous niche in the environment that is predicated on the advantages in hunting these genes provide," said researcher Jong Bhak to National Geographic. 

Interestingly, the researchers found that fluffy indoor cats and majestic tigers have considerably more in common than was previously believed. 

"Tigers are just a big domestic cat," said Bhak to the BBC. "They're probably much closer than we thought."

How will this research help conservation? Scientists can use this specific genetic information to come up with plans to save vanishing big cat species from extinction, said the study authors to AFP, calling their findings a "rich and diverse" data source for potential rescue plans. 

Here's a documentary on the undisputed awesomeness of Siberian tigers. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/science/wildlife-news/130918/scientists-map-the-genomes-big-cats-first-time