Once a cheetah always a cheater
Wednesday 30 May 2007
Female cheetahs are regularly unfaithful to their male partners, researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) have found.
ZSL scientists, studying cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in the Serengeti, Tanzania, found that almost half* of all litters were made up of cubs with different fathers. This means sperm from several male cheetahs had been used to fertilise multiple eggs.
“Before we started the DNA analysis, we thought it was possible that female cheetahs were choosing to be cheaters, but we were amazed by the level of infidelity that we uncovered,” Dada Gottelli, ZSL’s lead scientist for the research, commented. “Mating with more than one male poses a serious threat to females, increasing the risk of exposure to parasites and diseases. Females also have to travel over large distances to find new males, making them more vulnerable to predation, so infidelity is a heavy burden. However, the benefit to the females is that their offspring are more genetically diverse, which is important in an unpredictable environment such as the Serengeti.”
Cheetahs are a threatened species (classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List) and are declining throughout their range. The effective breeding population is estimated to be below 10,000 individuals and the species faces threats of persecution by man and habitat loss. ZSL has been working to conserve the species for over fifteen years and have been leading the longest-running in-depth study of a wild cheetah population (the Serengeti Cheetah Project).
Dr Sarah Durant, ZSL author and project leader of the Serengeti Cheetah Project since 1991, added: “This research shows that more of the male cheetah population are contributing to the next generation than we had expected. This is good news for conservation as the genetic diversity of future generations of cheetah will be preserved by their duplicitous behaviour.”
The work, which was undertaken in the Serengeti National Park, was led by ZSL in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. The study is published today (30th May 2007) in journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
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Notes to editors
- 43% of all litters of multiple cubs were made up of offspring fathered by different male
- Founded in 1826, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) is an international scientific, conservation and educational charity: our key role is the conservation of animals and their habitats. The Society runs ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, carries out scientific research in the Institute of Zoology and is actively involved in field conservation in other countries worldwide.
- The research undertaken involved using microsatellite analysis of DNA from faecal samples of known individual cheetahs collected over a 9-year period, together with accurate long-term field records to test whether multiple paternity is seen within litters.
- Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are found mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and occupy a wide range of habitats from desert to thick bush, but are never numerous wherever they occur. Female adult cheetah are solitary and usually have litters of 3-4 cubs. Cheetahs are predators, feeding predominantly on antelope such as Thomson’s gazelle. Cheetah have a unique system of ranging patterns and semi-sociality found in no other mammal – whereby male coalitions occupy small territories which are a fraction of the home range of solitary female cheetah.
- Cheetah conservation has been a major focus for ZSL since 1991. With the support of the Tanzanian authorities, and more recently in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), we have been carrying out the longest-running in-depth study of a wild cheetah population (the Serengeti Cheetah Project).
- The research found the cheetah demonstrated simultaneous polyandry, the process by which females mate with more than one male to produce a brood of young bearing genes from each male. Polyandry is much less common than polygyny, in which males mate with more than one female. In species where there is a low paternal investment in the offspring, it is beneficial for males to mate with as many females as possible. As in most species there is a much higher maternal than paternal investment, it is more unusual to find females mating with a number of males.
- The Zoological Society of London holds a pair of cheetah in its Living Collection at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. ZSL Whipsnade Zoo was the first zoo in the world to breed and successfully rear cheetah in 1967. Since then over 130 cheetah have been born at the park. ZSL London Zoo had the first official record of a cheetah held in a living collection in 1829.
- High resolution versions of attached images available on request . Lead author of paper, Dada Gottelli, available for interview
Contact: Joanna Green
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