Cheetah Cubs Born at Smithsonian


Cheetah births in captivity are rare, so the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute today proudly announced the birth of two cubs born to two separate females.

According to a press release from the Front Royal, Va., facility, 5-year-old Amani gave birth on Dec. 6 and 9-year-old Zazi had her cub on Dec. 16. The births resulted in the facility’s first-ever cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) cubs.

Since mother cheetahs that produce only one cub, called a singleton, cannot make enough milk to keep the cub alive, scientists at the Smithsonian gave Amani’s cub to Zazi to nurse after it was hand-raised by staff for 13 days. It’s hoped that having two cubs will stimulate Zazi to make a sufficient amount of milk.

“When we realized that Amani had a singleton, we removed the cub to hand rear it,” Adrienne Crosier, SCBI cheetah biologist, said in the press release. “So when Zazi gave birth, we decided it was the perfect opportunity to give both cubs a chance at survival as one litter under her care without any additional interference by us. Only a few institutions in North America have ever successfully cross-fostered cheetah cubs, and this is a first for SCBI.”

Amani’s cub has already undergone extensive testing, including an MRI, because the newborn displayed some worrisome tremors during its first few weeks of life. At first scientists thought the cub had hypothermia, but it displays normal growth and appetite. Then they suspected a congenital brain disorder, but so far there’s been no proof of that and the cub seems to be doing better now.

Nevertheless, cheetah cubs born in captivity have about a 20 percent mortality rate, compared to up to 70 percent in the wild in east Africa. Animal care staff will therefore continue to monitor the two cubs closely in the coming weeks and months. Thirty-three cheetah cubs, including the two new SCBI ones, have been born in North America this year and have survived. The Smithsonian zoo’s two facilities now care for 13 cheetahs.

The mom connection isn’t the only parental bond shared by the cubs. That’s because both cubs were sired by 2-year-old brothers that just arrived at the SCBI in April. Since these adult fellows are proving to be rather studly, they will probably be transferred to other breeding facilities in hopes that they will sire more cubs. With different moms, genetic diversity is improved, helping to keep the overall cheetah population in captivity healthy.

Cheetah births in zoos across the country have dwindled over the past five years, so the two new births are significant. One possible reason for the decline in births is that female cheetahs in captivity are getting older, and females do not reproduce well after age 8. SCBI scientists are presently investigating whether they can harvest eggs from an older female, fertilize them and then transfer them to a younger surrogate female.

“We are proud to help find a solution to maintaining a sustainable captive cheetah population,” said Steve Monfort, director of SCBI. “This is only our first year of having breeding pairs at SCBI, so it’s really exciting that we have produced two cubs. The more that we understand about our cheetahs, the more we can do for those in human care throughout North America and for those in the wild.”

It’s estimated that there are now only 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild, due to human conflict, hunting and habitat loss.

You can now see three adult cheetahs from the SCBI at the National Zoo. If you can’t make the trip, check out this slideshow, showing many of the animals that were born at the zoo during 2010.

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