Genetic study traces source of Asiatic cheetah

V Rishi Kumar Hyderabad | Updated on March 18, 2020 Published on March 18, 2020

A collaborative research initiative taken up by CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, has gathered evidence on the genetic uniqueness of the Asiatic cheetah.

This research merits a targeted conservation effort, according to Rakesh K Mishra, Director, CCMB.

Scientists at the CSIR-CCMB, in collaboration with Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow; University of Cambridge, UK; Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata; University of Johannesburg, South Africa; and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore provide mitochondrial DNA analyses to understand the finer details of the evolutionary history of Asiatic and African cheetahs, a sub-species of the Acinonyx jubatus.

Cheetah reintroduction

Over the last many centuries, India’s cheetah population has been dwindling. Today, Africa harbours the highest number of these cats, called the African cheetah.

The Asiatic cheetahs, on the other hand, are found in numbers as small as 50 in Iran. For more than a decade, India has been discussing whether it should reintroduce the cheetah in the wild.

While the earlier cheetahs in India were of the Asiatic breed — whose numbers are dwindling across the world — this time, the country wants to try and see if the African cheetah can adapt to the Indian conditions.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court allowed the Centre to introduce southern African cheetahs into suitable habitats in the country.

A major parameter that decides the choice between Asiatic and African cheetah reintroduction in India is the genetic differences between the two breeds.

The farther back they diverged along evolution, the more different these two populations would be from each other. These results have recently been published in scientific reports.

Genetic divergence

According to K Thangaraj, senior author of this study and Chief Scientist at the CCMB: “We have analysed three distinct cheetah samples; first one was a skin sample of a cheetah believed to be shot in Madhya Pradesh in the 19th Century, provided by the mammal gallery of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata; and the second was a bone sample of cheetah obtained from the Mysore Natural History Museum, dating back to 1850-1900. The third was a blood sample of a modern cheetah sample from the Nehru Zoological Park (NZP), Hyderabad”.

“We have isolated DNA from both the historical samples (skin and bone) in the ancient DNA facility of CCMB. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of these two samples, along with the modern cheetah sample, were sequenced and analysed along with mtDNA of 118 cheetah from different parts of Africa and South-West Asia,” added Niraj Rai, one of the lead authors of this study.

“While the museum specimen from ZSI and the modern sample from NZP are of North-East African maternal descent; the museum specimen from Mysuru shows close affinities with South-East African cheetahs,” said Thangaraj.

Extensive analysis of this study suggests that the divergence of the North-east African cheetah from both the South-East African and Asiatic cheetah happened between 100-2,00,000 years ago.

Their results also suggest the South-East African and Asiatic cheetah diverged from each other 50-100,000 years ago. “This is contrary to an existing belief that the evolutionary divide between Asiatic and African cheetahs is only of 5,000 years,” said Guy Jacobs, a senior researcher associated from University of Cambridge, said.

Published on March 18, 2020
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