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Genomic legacy of the African cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus

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Genomic legacy of the African cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus

The African cheetah—the world’s fastest land animal—is a paradigm of physical prowess that displays numerous physiological adaptations allowing for magnificent high-speed sprints across the African plains. Cheetahs have elongated legs, slim aerodynamic skulls and enlarged adrenal glands, liver and heart, plus semi-retractable claws that grip the earth like football cleats as they race after prey at >100 km/hour. Cheetahs have captured the imagination of artists, writers, regal potentates and wildlife lovers for centuries. Initially descended from early Pliocene precursors related to American pumas, their fossil record extends across the Americas, Europe and Asia until the late Pleistocene (∼10,000–12,000 years ago) when an abrupt extinction after the last glacial retreat extirpated ∼40 species of large mammals, including cheetahs and pumas from North America .

Modern cheetahs range across eastern and southern Africa (a small number are in Iran, a relict of the Asiatic cheetah subspecies and are considered highly endangered by wildlife authorities and governments. As a species, cheetahs show a dramatic reduction in overall genetic variation revealed by multiple genomic markers, including an ability to accept reciprocal skin grafts from unrelated cheetahs . Their genetic depletion correlates with elevated juvenile mortality, extreme abnormalities in sperm development, difficulties until recently in achieving sustainable captive breeding, and increased vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks . Cheetahs today remain a conservation icon and a symbol for the cost of genetic impoverishment caused by demographic reduction, close inbreeding and near extinction in small free-ranging natural populations. Genetic loss in modern cheetahs has been debated, validated and researched on multiple levels, and is believed to derive from one or more severe population bottlenecks that occurred over time and space during the Pleistocene epoch . That precipitous drop in number and genetic diversity, aggravated by behavioral reinforcement of immense range boundaries, led to the genetically depleted cheetah populations surviving today.

source : BioMed Central

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