Audio "Aphrodisiac" Spurs Rare Cheetah Birth--A First

Matt Kaplan
for National Geographic News
March 24, 2009
In a world first, a rare baby cheetah owes its life to a doctored recording of a recently discovered male call that triggers ovulation.

Kenya, a first-time cheetah mom, gave birth to the healthy female cub on February 18 at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, park officials announced earlier this month.

The cub is a direct result of research reported earlier this year describing a male vocalization called a stutter-bark.

Scientists at the park's Conservation Research had found that male stutter-barks trigger females' reproductive systems to start releasing eggs.

The finding was a potential boon, as cheetahs can be difficult to breed in captivity because females don't have regular ovulation cycles.

But there was still a catch: In captivity, certain females need to mate with particular males to maintain genetic diversity among the big cats. (Take a big cat quiz.)

Vocal Competition

Traditionally, scientists have found that their "arranged marriages" for the cheetahs don't always suit the animals' fancies—a situation that could have been aggravated by the fact that the recorded stutter-bark was from the park's dominant male cheetah.

If a female cheetah heard the call of the dominant—and probably more desirable—male, she might reject the male chosen for her as a good genetic match, the scientists feared.

"To compensate for this, I modified the dominant male stutter-bark call slightly using an acoustic software program," said Matt Anderson, the lead bioacoustics researcher on the project.

The software produced a stutter-bark that sounded authentic but was totally different from the calls of any of the park's males.

The audio manipulation not only worked, it surprised the scientists by inspiring a bit of the real thing.

"We were delighted when the stutter-barks from this 'new' member of the cheetah group stimulated all our males to start stutter-barking themselves," Anderson said.

"The females heard these calls and started breeding with the males that we wanted them to breed with."

Shortly afterward Kenya was found to be pregnant, and three months later she gave birth to a single, as-yet unnamed cub.

Since inexperienced cheetah moms often have trouble rearing a lone baby, animal care staff decided to hand-raise the newborn.

Park staff are hopeful that the success could lead to more captive cheetah births in the future.

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