Science is full of pet theories yet over time and with new research we sometimes find our pet theories don’t hold water and/or what we thought was, was not. Such is the case when it comes to the infamous Cheetah. Thought to be a native big cat from Africa it’s now been determined that we could not be more WRONG. The Cheetah actually came from NORTH AMERICA and migrated TO Africa!!
The Cheetah migration out of North America, across Asia, and into eastern and southern Africa is now believed to have occurred around 100,000 years ago sometime during the last Ice Age. This migration, however, had severe consequences for the Cheetah as it led to a dramatic reduction in the animals gene pool as they were forced into incestuous relationships in order to procreate and survive! This new data comes from St Petersburg State University in Russia.
The University sequenced the genomes of 7 cheetahs from Namibia and Tanzania. Researchers found 18 genes in these cheetah’s showed damaging mutations especially AKAP4 which showed a large number of mutations that could harm sperm production and could explain why cheetah’s have such a hard time breeding. It is now surmised that the cheetah encountered two bottlenecks that resulted in severely limiting the cheetah’s numbers during the Late Pleistocene about 100K years ago and another around 10K-12K years ago. It is that second event around 12K years ago when the American Cheetah is believed to have become extinct. Fossils of prehistoric cheetahs have been found in North America, incidentally.
Not only did these bottlenecks have severe consequences on Cheetah breeding and mate selection but it also resulted in the Cheetah loosing a large number of immune system genes. Researchers believe this may in part explain why cheetahs today accepts skin grafts from unrelated cheetahs without a problem.
Findings were published in the journal, Genome Biology. The study also revealed that the cheetah is related to the American Cougar (Mountain Lion or Puma).
According to the latest genetic studies Pumas (American mountain lion) and Cheetahs share many traits and they are
closely related. However, it must be noted that study of ancient cheetah fossils suggest strongly that the ancestors of the American cheetah came from Asia and Europe and they appear to have migrated to North America. The oldest prehistoric puma fossil remains date to 400K years ago but older primitive puma remains have been found in Europe and Asia. So the big cat may be of Eurasian origins rather than African or North American. And some studies suggest there were several migrations of the cheetah out of Asia into North America, Europe, and Africa.
So basically what happened in the last Ice Age is that the cheetah came very close to extinction but it survived by inbreeding! And that is why cheetahs today have such a hard time breeding among other things.
The American Cheetah is known as Miracinonyx. There were at least two feline species in prehistoric North America at one time during the Pleistocene. Morphologically they did look like modern cheetahs. The two prehistoric species are known as Miracinonyx inexpectatus and M. trumani. A third species is also recognized known as M. studeri. These species were larger than modern cheetahs weighing about 150 lbs on average with a length of over 3 ft and a height around 3 ft. Large specimens could have weighed more than 200 lbs, however.
M trumani is believed to have lived on the plains and prairies of Western America. The Pronghorn Antelope that roams America’s prairies and grasslands is believed to have been the American cheetah’s main food source. It is for this reason that it is believed the Pronghorn developed the ability to run at high speeds that far exceed the necessity for outrunning modern American predators. This species of the American cheetah was more like the cheetahs we find today in Africa.
M. inexpectatus was more similar to the American cougar in appearance. It had retractable claws and was lighter built. However, this species was more likely faster than the cougar.