Cheetah cubs born in captivity at Smithsonian's research center

Dec 29, 2010

Adrienne Crosier, cheetah biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, will be online Wednesday, Dec. 29, at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss the birth of two cheetah cubs, becoming the first born at the research center in Northern Virginia and among the first to be raised by the same mother as non-siblings.

The cubs - born 10 days apart in December - are being followed closely by cheetah experts because they are the sixth case of "cross-fostering" in North America since 1995, said Crosier.

Photo Gallery: A rare cheetah foster family

HI - My name is Adrienne Crosier, Cheetah Biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  I am looking forward to taking your questions today about our cheetah cubs.  

Was the conception of these two cubs natural or was in-vitro used? Also, what is the success rate of in-vitro when used on cheetahs?

Both of these cubs were the result of natural matings.  In vitro fertilization has never before been attempted in cheetahs.  Artificial insemination, however, has a ~30% success rate in this species. 

How many cheetahs are in Front Royal and how often do you breed them?

We have a total of 9 cheetahs here in Front Royal, including the two new cubs.  We also have 4 cheetahs at the National Zoo in DC.   These are the first cubs produced here at the Front Royal facility.  We will be breeding our other adult females here in Front Royal in the spring. 

Why was the cub taken away from his mother in the first place? Was it simply a matter of one cub not being able to stimulate the milk production, or did the mother lack the skills/instincts necessary to raise her cub?

Yes, a single cheetah cub cannot stimulate enough milk production from the mother.  Amani, the mother of the first singleton, was a very devoted mother.  Unfortunately, the biology of the species prevents the mother from being able to physically produce enough milk to raise a single cub. 

Would you explain cross fostering?

Cross-fostering is a management tool in which cheetah cubs from one litter are placed with a mom and cubs from a separate litter.  This mom then becomes a surrogate or foster mother for the first cub or cubs.  Zazi, our foster mother cheetah, produced a litter in 2005 so she was an experienced mom already.   

Do you do anything special to introduce the cub to the foster mother to help her accept the little stranger, or just put the cub in with her and hope for the best?

In anticipation of a potential cross-foster situation, we had saved bedding from Zazi's den the week before she gave birth.  The older single cub then slept in this bedding the night before we introduced him to Zazi so that he got used to her smell and also started to smell a bit like her bedding.  The morning of the introduction, we rubbed the two cubs together and also rubbed more of Zazi's bedding on him in hopes of transferring these smells to him.  

Did the mother immediately accept the foster or did it take some time?

Zazi immediately picked up the new addition and then put him right back down in her nest box.  She started grooming him right away.  Within ~1 hour, she was nursing him and her own cub at the same time. 

Does Amani notice that her cub is not around? What was her reaction when she saw that her cub was not in the nest box?

For the first day or two Amani did seem to notice that her cub was missing.  However, she quickly resumed her normal behavior and now is back to her old self. 

Has Amani bred prior to this year? How long before she comes into heat again? Do cheetahs cycle all year, or only in the spring/summer season?

This was the first year that Amani had ever bred.  Cheetah females come into heat quickly (within ~1 week) after losing a cub or having a psuedo (false) pregnancy.   Cheetahs come into heat all year round; they are not seasonal. 

Hello Adrienne, even though first time mother Amani wouldn't have been able to produce enough milk for her single cub, would there have been any way for her to raise it without placing the cub with other mother Zazi and her cub? Was this a difficult decision or was it absolutely necessary?

A single cub must either be hand-raised or cross-fostered onto a surrogate female.  This was a necessary decision.  Only a very few places in North America have ever attempted cross-fostering of cheetah cubs.  The success of this cross-fostering provides all cheetah managers with additional information and tools to better manage this species under human care.  

Are both the cubs male?

The older cub is a male, and the younger cub is a female. 

Is there ongoing research to harvest eggs from older cheetahs? Is there a chance that one day in vitro fertilization will be possible in cheetahs?

Yes, there is ongoing research investigating how we can harvest and fertilize eggs from older cheetahs.  We have recently learned that eggs from aged females fertilize and develop into embryos as well as eggs from young females.  We currently are working on the next steps towards successful transfer of in vitro produced cheetah embryos. 

You said the success rate of AI is 30 percent, what is the rate for natural mating? How do you keep genetic diversity - do zoos ship males to other zoos for mating?

The genetic diversity of the North American population is managed by the Cheetah Species Survival Plan.  This management team makes recommendations for specific breedings based on genetics, age, health, behavior and other factors (it is like a Match.com for cheetahs!)  Zoos do ship animals regularly for both breeding and exhibit purposes.

Will these babies go on display at the National Zoo? Or will they stay at Front Royal?

There are no immediate plans to move these cheetahs to the zoo.  Animal care staff will be discussing this option in the future. 

What is causing extinction in the wild of cheetahs? Their babies are adorable!

Extinction of wild cheetahs is due to loss of habitat, loss of natural prey species and general competition for resources with humans.  All of the information we learn about cheetahs under human care help us to better conserve cheetahs in the wild. 

It is my understanding that there is virtually no diversity at all among the cheetahs in the world making them terribly vulnerable to disease and various other threats to inbred species. Is this accurate and is there anything that you are able to do to address that situation?

Cheetahs do have a lack of genetic diversity making them suseptible to disease.  As managers of this species, we make every attempt to maintain and broaden the genetic diversity of the animals under our care. 

Since the eggs from older females seem to develop normally, what could be the reason that older females don't seem to have cubs?

As female cheetahs age, they develop pathologies in their uterus that prevents them from establishing pregnancy.  This is worsened if a female has never given birth before.  Based on research conducted here at SCBI, we have recently learned that the best management tool to combat this is the early breeding of females (i.e.: at ~3-4 years of age).  

It sounds like Zazi also only had one cub, but she was able to produce enough milk for her singleton (before the addition, that is?) Please explain.

Zazi did also have a single cub.  In this case, for the first few days, Zazi was able to produce enough milk to sustain one cub.  Animal care staff monitored Zazi and her cub very closely until we were able to cross-foster Amani's cub on day 5 after Zazi gave birth.   

If you had not had a foster mother waiting in the wings, what would have happened to the first single cub? Is is possible or advisable to hand rear cheetah cubs?

If we had not been able to cross-foster Amani's cub, we would have continued to hand-raise him until he was old enough to eat meat.  Some hand-raised cheetah cubs are poorly socialized as adults and often do not reproduce successfully.  

Will there be a webcam so we can follow the cubs and mother's progress?

We are currently looking into this option, but this may require some additional resources.  Please continue to check the Smithsonian's National Zoo's website (www.nationalzoo.si.edu) for updates on the cubs. 

How long do cheetahs live?

In the wild, cheetahs live for 6-8 years on average.  Under human care, they live for an average of 12-14 years. 

Do you know Laurie Marker and have you been to Namibia to help with her conservation efforts?

I do know Laurie Marker very well.  I was fortunate enough to live and work with Laurie at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) for ~3 years.  During my time in Namibia, the National Zoo and the CCF collaborated on many research projects investigating cheetah reproductive biology as well as training of students and professionals.   These collaborative efforts are still ongoing today. 

Thank you so much for all of your interesting questions.  Please continue to track the cubs on the Smithsonian's National Zoo's website www.nationalzoo.si.edu

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Adrienne Crosier
Adrienne Crosier is a cheetah biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va.
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