Don’t Judge a Cheetah by Its Spots: New Insights into the Genetics and Evolutionary History of African and Asiatic Cheetahs

The genetics of wild cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) populations has a special significance for me. In fact, it could be said that the population genetics of cheetahs changed my life.  I first learned about the low genetic variability in cheetahs in a darkened lecture hall at Iowa State University in 1988. I was so fascinated by what I learned in those lectures about genetics and its importance in conservation efforts that I eventually changed my major to Genetics.  “The Cheetah Papers” as a colleague calls them, were, and perhaps still are, common teaching tools for biology and genetics classes. And why not? The results were amazingly cool, if a bit disturbing. Imagine a population that, through a series of natural events over thousands of years, had become so genetically similar to one another as to be almost clonal.

Still, if science teaches us nothing else, it teaches us that there is always more to the story. Continue reading

Caspian Tigers: Extinction Not Quite Forever?

Panthera_tigris_virgata

The Caspian Tiger might not be as extinct as once believed.

When is an extinct subspecies not extinct? Maybe when it is not really a subspecies at all— The tiger subspecies Panthera tigris virgata, or Caspeian Tiger, was purported to have become extinct in February of 1970 when the last survivor was shot in Turkey. Leaving aside the hard to grasp idea that we might know down to the month when a species became extinct because someone shot the last one, it is clear that one tiger can hardly make little tigers by itself, so that subspecies was already doomed. Or was it? Continue reading