Research Highlight

Genetic study traces origin of extinct Indian cheetah

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.48 Published online 20 March 2020

Handlers pose with the Indian Cheetah, a species now extinct, in Baroda, Gujarat in the 1890s.

© Wikimedia Commons

An international research team has gained fresh insights into the origins and divergence of the Indian cheetah, hunted into extinction in the mid-20th century1. They suggest that the most recent common ancestor of all cheetahs is almost twice as ancient as previously reported.

This study may help fine-tune the cheetah evolutionary history, with far-reaching implications on conservation and the re-introduction of the cheetah into India.

The team's genetic analyses reveal that Indian cheetahs are more closely related to South-east African cheetahs than to North-east African ones. The scientists, including researchers from the CSIR Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow, India, isolated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from a museum specimen of Indian cheetah and two African cheetahs, one modern and the other historic, imported into India at different times. 

They then sequenced the mtDNA of the Indian and African cheetahs, and compared them with mtDNA samples of 118 cheetahs from various parts of Africa and Asia.

Led by Kuamarasamy Thangaraj and Guy S. Jacobs, the researchers found that the Indian cheetah diverged from the South-east African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) about 72,000 years ago. The North-east African cheetahs, they report, parted company with both South-east African and Asiatic cheetahs between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Since offspring get their mtDNA from mothers, scanning this DNA allowed the researchers to refine the maternal picture of cheetah divergence.






1. Rai. N. et al. Ancient mtDNA from the extinct Indian cheetah supports unexpectedly deep divergence from African cheetahs. Sci. Rep.10, 4618 (2020)