First cheetah cubs born from IVF

Dana Hedgpeth

THE WASHINGTON POST – For the first time, a pair of cheetah cubs was born after an in vitro fertilisation procedure to a surrogate cheetah, with help from scientists at the National Zoo.

Zoo officials said the cubs were born at the Columbus Zoo to three-year-old Izzy. The biological mother is six and a half-year-old Kibibi.

Experts at the National Zoo in the District of Columbia said in a statement that “cheetahs naturally have low genetic diversity due to a near extinction at the end of the last ice age”. For about 20 years, scientists have been trying to boost the cheetah population through IVF and embryo transfers. Officials said the embryo transfer was done by scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, and the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.

The semen for the cheetah cubs came from a cheetah at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas. Eggs were harvested from Kibibi at the Columbus, Ohio, Zoo last November, and they underwent in vitro fertilisation in a lab. The fertilised embryos were then transferred to Izzy.

Officials said it was the third time scientists attempted the procedure worldwide and it was the first time it worked.

A reproductive biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and one of the scientists who performed the embryo transfer, Pierre Comizzoli said the birth makes cheetahs the second large cat to successfully be born from in vitro fertilisation. The first was the tiger in 1990. “The cheetah is one new success in terms of IVF but this is still extremely rare in wild species,” he said. “Wild species are far behind livestock and humans.”

Kibibi never gave birth but was unlikely to reproduce on her own. “Her valuable genes were at risk of never being passed on,” the zoo said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Izzy is “less genetically valuable”, and scientists recommended she not be bred. Izzy was hand-raised as a cub and comfortable with keepers, making her a good candidate for surrogacy, officials said.

The first two cheetah cubs born via embryo transfer. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST