Once a cheetah always a cheater
Wednesday 30 May 2007
Female cheetahs are regularly unfaithful to their male partners, researchers from 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.