Fit Cheetahs - The Project
‘Fit Cheetahs’ is the name of this conservation project, which seeks to find a non-invasive way to establish relatedness of individuals and increase genetic variation in cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). It is a comparative study of ‘genotyping’ and the new ‘Footprint Identification Technique’ (FIT).
The FIT software is based on the knowledge of native trackers who can read footprints like a book! Apart from being able to tell us the species, they can also recognise the individual, the age range and the gender of the animal and possibly whether individuals are related. The FIT software for cheetah is well developed and can already recognise an individual’s footprint with a 99% accuracy and age range and gender with an over 90% accuracy. And there are indications that it may also be able to tell us relatedness of individuals – which is what I want to put to the test!
To validate whether FIT can establish relatedness of individuals, I will collect footprints and DNA from captive cheetahs, analyse both and compare the results. To avoid any bias, the FIT analysis will be done first and then compared to the results of the genotyping.
The video in the following research article illustrates the process of FIT – from the footprinting of the cheetah to the analysis of the footprint with the help of the FIT software: https://www.jove.com/video/54034/spotting-cheetahs-identifying-individuals-by-their-footprints
I am grateful to the N/a’an ku sê Foundation in Namibia, who has agreed for me to include a group of their captive cheetahs into this study. In addition, I am also intending to get several zoos on board, so that I can include different subspecies of cheetah, rather than solely South African cheetahs from Namibia. There are five recognised subspecies of cheetah: The Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki), the Central African cheetah (A. j. soemmeringii), the East African cheetah (A. j. raineyi or A. j. fearsoni), the South African cheetah (A. j. jubatus) and the Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus). If cheetahs from the other four subspecies are included in the study, both the genotyping and the FIT should show clearly that these individuals are not related to the South African cheetahs in this study.
Why is this research important?
Cheetahs have very poor genetic variation. This means that there is not much difference in the genetic material within the species. Those differences are important though and keep a population healthy. The more a population is reduced in numbers, the less variation there is and inbreeding and subsequent health problems occur. They become susceptible to the same diseases and are just not as fit and healthy as they could and should be. As a result, cheetahs are susceptible to certain diseases which they often don’t survive, males become infertile and cub mortality is high. This, together with the problems caused by human-wildlife conflict and the pet trade, leads to a reduction in population numbers and it becomes a vicious circle. The more the population numbers decline, the less genetic variation there is and the more health problems are likely to occur. The species could ultimately face extinction!
It is therefore important that when a cheetah is to be released or translocated, that a suitable release site is found. A lot of factors play a role in this but one important factor should be the level of relatedness between the released individual and other cheetahs living in the area. It is important that they are not related or at least as distantly related as possible so that this new cheetah can contribute to increasing the genetic variation.
In addition, FIT has already been developed for several other species and WildTrack is constantly working on algorithms for new species. So, if my findings show that FIT can indeed establish relatedness of individuals in cheetah, then it may well be that this is also possible for other species. Ultimately, having such a non-invasive monitoring technique that is also cheaper and quicker than genotyping, could make a huge difference for conservation science!
Please watch the video below for an overview of my cheetah conservation project. I hope you find it informative and feel encouraged to back this important cause.
Video link (now public): https://vimeo.com/219673472/86b403c422
 FIT was developed by WildTrack, http://wildtrack.org/