For many reasons, breeding cheetahs is difficult. Because most of the species died leaving only a small number left to repopulate in the wild some 10,000 years ago, today’s cheetah population suffers from low genetic diversity. All living cheetahs are between 5 and 10 percent genetically alike; this similarity manifests itself in poor sperm quality, increased disease susceptibility and high infant mortality.
To make matters worse females are picky about which mates they choose and have delicate reproductive cycles. If two unrelated female cheetahs are placed in the same living quarters, the stress can actually shut down one another’s reproductive, or estrous, cycles. But even in non-stressful situations, female cheetahs’ estrous cycles are extremely unpredictable. Adrienne Crosier, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Species Survival who leads the cheetah breeding program, says they hesitate to call it a cycle because it is so difficult to track.
This is all unfortunate, because the world’s fastest land mammal could use help breeding. The cheetah has been critically endangered for decades. Between 7,000 and 10,000 cheetahs are left in the wild—the majority in Africa—down from 100,000 in 1900, and habitat destruction and human conflict continue to decrease their numbers.
The good news is that scientists are making headway with assisted reproduction techniques that could help save the charismatic animal. …
This article originally appeared on Scientific American‘s website on April 30, 2015.