A Moment of Science

Cheetahs Cut from the Same Cloth

Though some of the oldest surviving felines, cheetahs have the genetic diversity equivalent to identical twins.

A cheetah family of five lounges in the sun at the Smithsonian National Zoo

Photo: Smithsonian National Zoo (Flickr)

These look-a-like cheetahs show off their spots for a family portrait.

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to tell cheetahs apart? It’s because cheetahs are as genetically similar to each other as identical twins.

Genetic Bottleneck

Though cheetahs have been around for millions of years, only one species of cheetah managed to survive a catastrophic climate change about ten thousand years ago. This resulted in a genetic bottleneck, forcing remaining cheetahs to breed with their relatives.

Though conventional wisdom about inbreeding suggests that the cheetah’s lack of genetic variety puts it at risk of extinction, the cheetah is the oldest of the big cats and has survived the longest.

Natural Habitat

Genetic bottlenecks only lead to extinction if harmful genes are passed on and become fixed in the population. The real reason cheetahs are endangered is because humans are destroying the cheetah’s natural habitat and eliminating its prey.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there were a hundred thousand cheetahs on earth. Now it’s estimated there are only nine to twelve thousand. Evolution just doesn’t work that fast. Odds are that if humans would stop interfering with their habitats, cheetahs would continue to survive.

So humans have to stop cheating the cheetahs or the results could be cat-astrophic!

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