Two cubs, each weighing about as much as a can of tomato soup, became the first cheetahs to be born through in vitro fertilization (IVF) to a surrogate mom. They came into the world on Wednesday, February 19th, 2020, at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the zoo announced on February 24th.
IVF has been difficult to achieve in big cats. Three tiger cubs born in 1990 were the last reported success, according to the Columbus Zoo. The cheetahs’ births are a hopeful sign that IVF could help the species bounce back from dwindling numbers and a shrinking genetic diversity.
“These two cubs may be tiny but they represent a huge accomplishment,” Randy Junge, the Columbus Zoo’s vice president of animal health, said in a statement. IVF could become an important part of managing the species’s population in the future, Junge noted.
Cheetahs are considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as they face a high risk of extinction in the wild. There are just 7,500 left. Those in the wild roam just 10 percent of the land they once lived on, thanks in part to the expansion of tourism, livestock farming, and ranching in the region.
Losing their land has left groups of cheetahs isolated, leading to a genetic “bottleneck,” according to the Columbus Zoo. That’s why the cheetah who gave birth to the new cubs, Izzy, was implanted with another cheetah, Kibibi’s, eggs. Kibibi’s genes “are considered to be valuable in maintaining a strong lineage of cheetahs in human care,” said the Columbus Zoo. Izzy, on the other hand, was an ideal surrogate because she was younger and more likely to give birth to healthy cubs without complications, plus her bloodline is already well-represented among cheetahs.
The new cubs have set a precedent, but conservationists will need to be able to show that they can do the same again and again. If they succeed, Junge said, scientists might be able to freeze embryos and bring them to Africa to prop up the population that’s still living in the wild. (The Verge)