Friday, December 19, 2008

Even when we try our damnedest.

Cheetahs are truly some of the most amazing animals on the planet. It's the fastest land animal, accelerating from 0 to 70 mph faster than even high-end sports cars and maxing out around 75 mph. In much of its home range, conservationists have been fighting relentlessly to bring back population numbers from excessive hunting and territory loss. The species, once in the hundreds of thousands before 1800, was down to less than 12,500 by 1980. And these efforts, largely, have been successful in rebounding the big cat's numbers. Unfortunately, it may be all for naught.

You see, cheetahs faced a far worse event than our relatively recent hunting - a bottleneck around 10,000 years ago 1. A bottleneck occurs when a population drops to really, really low numbers such that their genetic diversity is forever altered. In the case of cheetahs, the population may have dropped to as low as 500 cats, and now the entire population are so closely related that you could donate skin grafts from any one animal to another. To compare, there's a good chance even your immediate family are too genetically distinct to do the same to you. Their genetic diversity is 90-99% lower than other cats.

Now, no matter how hard we try to rebound population numbers, their genes are making it difficult. Babies are born with deformities and genetic flaws that no amount of protection can prevent. Thus, last week, the UN placed the beautiful animal on the Endangered Species List. The move is a blow to wildlife enthusiasts who had previously considered the population growth in recent years a success. The battle is now between evolution and inbreeding, not the cats and the humans. The cats need to develop enough genetic mutations and gene variants to counter the negative effects of inbreeding before their population collapses completely.

However, with new technology, I wonder if there isn't something we can do to help. Call me crazy, but we recently sequenced DNA from a mammoth, didn't we? I don't know about sample size or ethics, but isn't it possible for us to pull genes from much older cheetah specimens to boost their genetic viability? It just seems such a shame to sit idly by and watch this majestic animal breed itself to extinction.