Everyone loves a newborn animal. And at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, there’s even more reason to celebrate the birth of two cheetah cubs—they were born through in vitro fertilization, a feat that has been historically difficult in the big cat community. This is potentially game-changing for cheetah conservation efforts worldwide.
While in vitro fertilization, or IVF, is common with humans and other species, it previously had been unsuccessful with large cats, including cheetahs and lions. In the IVF process, sperm and eggs are fertilized in a laboratory and then incubated to create embryos. They embyros are then implanted into the female’s uterus, where they may develop into fetuses.
In the case of the cheetah cubs at the Columbus Zoo, the eggs came from a cheetah named Kibibi. However, the embryos were implanted in an older cheetah named Isabelle (Izzy). According to the cheetahs’ care team, Izzy is being an attentive mom and her cubs (a boy and girl) have both been seen nursing—which are all good things.
“These two cubs may be tiny, but they represent a huge accomplishment, with expert biologists and zoologists working together to create this scientific marvel,” said Dr. Randy Junge, the Columbus Zoo’s Vice President of Animal Health. “This achievement expands scientific knowledge of cheetah reproduction, and may become an important part of the species’ population management in the future.”
Izzy and Kibibi are considered ambassador cheetahs and are accustomed to human interaction. They have deep bonds with their care providers and have been trained to allow ultrasounds, X-rays, blood draws, and other medical procedures. Zoo staff stayed near Izzy while she was in labor and at delivery just in case she needed assistance.
“In the 19 years that I’ve worked with cheetahs, one of the big challenges is that we have no idea if a female is pregnant until at least 60 days following a procedure or breeding. Working with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium was a game-changer because their females are highly cooperative. We knew that Izzy was pregnant at five weeks by ultrasound and we continued to collect ultrasound data throughout her entire pregnancy. It was a remarkable opportunity and we learned so much,” said Adrienne Crosier, cheetah biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, one of the scientists who performed the embryo transfer.
“I am very proud of the team for this accomplishment,” said Jason Ahistus, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center Carnivore Curator. “It gives the cheetah conservation community another tool to use in cheetah management, both in situ and ex situ. It really opens the door to many new opportunities that can help the global cheetah population. This is a big win for the cheetah.”
Cheetahs are classified as “Vulnerable” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In their native Africa, they also have a decreasing population trend due to threats such as habitat loss, conflict with game farmers, and unregulated tourism. The potential for inbreeding is more likely due to the loss of their historic range. Scientists estimate that the cheetah population has declined to approximately 7,500.
Hopefully, with more successful births, these breathtaking creatures can recover.