Scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and the Columbus Zoo have successfully transferred cheetah embryos produced by in vitro fertilization (IVF) to a surrogate cheetah mom for the first time. Two cubs were born Feb. 19 to 3-year-old mom Izzy, though the cubs’ biological mom is 6 1/2-year-old, Kibibi. Cheetahs naturally have low genetic diversity due to a near extinction at the end of the last ice age.

However, techniques scientists use to boost genetic diversity and health in other endangered and vulnerable species have not had much success in cheetahs. IVF embryo transfer will help scientists and zoos build the most robust and genetically healthy insurance population of cheetahs in human care possible, and potentially could even help the genetics of wild cheetahs.

For the embryo-transfer procedure, scientists collected semen from a male cheetah living at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Texas in February 2019 and froze it. They then harvested eggs from Kibibi at the Columbus Zoo Nov. 19, 2019, and performed in vitro fertilization, fertilizing them in a laboratory with the sperm collected in Texas earlier that year. The fertilized embryos were then transferred to Izzy’s oviduct Nov. 21, 2019. It was only the third time scientists had ever attempted the procedure.

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