Ohio has welcomed two new scientific marvels—the first ever cheetah cubs born via in vitro fertilization. Cheetahs are a vulnerable species, with only 7,500 left in the wild. They also have low genetic diversity owing to a mass die-off about 10,000 years ago. That's made breeding cheetahs in captivity rather difficult. Indeed, there hasn't been a successful birth through artificial insemination since 2003, reports Smithsonian. That's why biologists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute opted to try IVF. And third time's the charm: After fertilizing eggs retrieved from a genetically valuable 6.5-year-old female at the Columbus Zoo with sperm from a male cheetah at the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas, who proved a good genetic match, the eggs were successfully implanted in a 3-year-old surrogate, also at the Columbus Zoo, whose genetic line is overrepresented.
The cubs—a male and a female who are nursing, per USA Today—were born Wednesday, about 90 days later, in a bit of a surprise. "Usually it takes many, many, many tries of a technique like this before it's successful," SCBI biologist Adrienne Crosier tells Smithsonian. "This is a really big breakthrough for us ... where we can reproduce these individuals that are unable or unwilling to breed naturally" to maximize genetic health, she says, noting the donor female has yet to give birth and "was unlikely to breed on her own." A third of cheetahs in captivity are unable to breed due to factors such as age, health, and behavior, per CNN. Yet "this is the science that could save that species in the wild," says Suzi Rapp of the Columbus Zoo. And perhaps not only cheetahs. SCBI biologist Pierre Comizzoli notes "one species' breakthrough opens the door for another." (Read more cheetah stories.)