A Non-Invasive Approach to Increase Genetic Variability and Reduce Disease in the Beautiful Cheetah


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Footprinting cheetahs to help them survive

New footprinting software is a non-invasive way to monitor cheetahs in the wild and help them survive

Cheetahs are in trouble! This beautiful big cat species is almost endangered and population numbers have declined by over 90% in the last 120 years. We need to act now to save them!

The new Footprint Identification Technique (FIT)[1] is based on the knowledge of the native trackers and can already ‘read’ a cheetah’s footprint to tell us the individual, age class and sex of the animal.

The goal of this research is to find out if FIT can also tell us whether two wild cheetahs are related. This would be important in population monitoring and in choosing a release site to prevent inbreeding.

Watch the video and read on to find out more about this fascinating project and how you can help!

[1] FIT was developed by WildTrack, http://wildtrack.org/

About the Project

There is very little genetic diversity between individuals within cheetah populations. Currently the only way to assess genetic diversity is using tissue, blood, hair of faecal sampling.

My project aims to address the problem of the cheetah’s poor genetic variation by finding a non-invasive way to establish relatedness of individuals. This would improve population monitoring and help with the choice of release sites for any cheetah that needs to be translocated or re-released. If the right release site is chosen, the released cheetah could then contribute to adding new genes to the resident population, thereby increasing their genetic variation and ultimately making them healthier and fitter!

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 sex 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, its age-class and its sex with an >90%. There are indications that it may also allow us to determine relatedness of individuals – which is what I want to put to the test!

To validate whether FIT can establish relatedness of individuals, footprints and DNA (in form of hair and scat samples) will be collected from captive cheetahs, analysed and the results will be compared. The study will include a minimum of 30 cheetahs, hopefully more, funding depending.

I am grateful to the N/a’an ku sê Foundation[1] in Namibia, which 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 as a control group. If cheetahs from the other 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, that a suitable release site is found. One important factor here 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 gene pool.

In addition, my research may lead the way for FIT to explore relatedness between individuals of other species. 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!

If you want to find out more about this amazing species and how you can help this fascinating cheetah conservation project, please watch my video and check out my website at www.fitcheetahs.com.

Funding cost and what will be done if more is raised

This is a self-funded PhD and I have so far paid for everything myself but am now at a stage where I need support to continue.

The funding needed for the entire project is £85,000 over three years. At least £20,000 will be needed in the first year. This covers field trips, equipment, various permits and visas, laboratory costs for DNA extraction and analysis, university fees, marketing and a small stipend. So, the goal for this initial stage is £20,000.

If this goal is exceeded, the additional money will go towards the next phases of the project (year 2 and 3). Any amount raised beyond the £85,000, will be used to include more cheetahs from zoos and sanctuaries. The more animals can be included, the more data is collected and the more robust the results are. Ideally, this study should also be repeated on another species and any extra funding left at the end of this project, will be put towards such a follow up study.

Why Crowdfunding?

I decided to try science crowdfunding, an innovative way for scientists to raise funding and engage with the public at the same time. This is important to me for several reasons:

  • Science crowdfunding bridges the gap between scientists and the public. The public rarely knows what exactly scientists do, how their research is performed and what the challenges are that scientists encounter. And often, the public are confronted with research results which are poorly communicated and do very little to increase understanding and support of science in the public domain.
  • I believe that it is important to show children and adults alike how interesting and important science is. And how much fun it can be!! As a science communicator, it is important to me to spark an interest in science, to show learning can and should be fun and to show the relevance of science in our everyday lives.
  • Crowdfunding is a good way to raise awareness of the plight of the cheetah, which continues despite the conservation efforts of numerous organisations. I therefore think it is essential to inform and include the public and raise awareness of – and funding for – cheetah conservation!

For all these reasons, I would like to share my research journey for this project with you! You will be able to follow my research through my blog which will be updated on a monthly basis. You will learn about cheetahs and find out how the research, both in the field and in the laboratory, is conducted and you will hear about the highs and lows as well as the everyday life of me as a researcher.

[1] http://naankuse.com/

Researcher’s Bio

Larissa Slaney (BSc (Honours) Life Sciences, LLB in German Law)

I am a Life Scientist and Wildlife Conservationist with a BSc (Honours) in Life Sciences. I have experience in wildlife conservation, molecular biology and science communication. I also have a degree in German Law.

I have been passionate about genetics and conservation for a long time and have worked as a volunteer at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo for several years. I had the idea for this project whilst volunteering at the Naankuse Foundation in Namibia in 2015.

During all my studies and projects, I have always enjoyed an interdisciplinary approach to find solutions and I believe that many problems are multifactorial and should therefore be approached with an open mind and from many different angles. Therefore, this project combines my love for genetics with my passion for conservation science, it combines laboratory and field work, which I both thoroughly enjoy. And I believe that to solve the problem of poor genetic variation, both in the cheetah as well as in other species, it is necessary to combine different scientific fields and think outside the box. As a lawyer and scientist, I have been trained to always find a solution, to persevere and not be afraid to try out new approaches. I am therefore determined to make this project happen, to find out whether FIT can establish relatedness and to contribute to increasing the genetic variation of the cheetah.

As this is a self-funded PhD, I am the only official team member. However, I work together with my supervisors at Heriot-Watt University, Associate Professors Peter Morris and Derek Jamieson, as well as the N/a’an ku se Foundation in Namibia and Dr Zoe Jewell and Dr Sky Alibhai from WildTrack in the USA. In addition, I consult with various wildlife geneticists globally.

If you want to find out more about this fascinating project, please have a look at my website at www.fitcheetahs.com.

[1] FIT was developed by WildTrack, http://wildtrack.org/

[2] http://naankuse.com/

Endorsements

Prof Francoise Wemelsfelder, SRUC, Scotland

“The research proposed in this project is creative, innovative and important. It aims to develop a new use of the footprint identification technique that will help conservationists improve the survival of wild cheetah populations. Larissa Slaney is a highly capable, determined and organised researcher; I am glad she is doing this work and I fully support her.”

Dr Charlotte Wendelboe-Nelson, Research Associate in Human Health and the Exposome, Heriot-Watt University, Scotland

“I first met Larissa Slaney when she assisted me in the laboratory with my research on the ‘Functional analysis of genes regulating barley drought stress’; she is full of tenacity and I thoroughly enjoyed working with her.

The time, effort, and determination Larissa has put into her ‘Fit Cheetahs’ conservation project is remarkable and inspirational. It is needless to say that the research is important, highly relevant and timely.

Larissa’s knowledge and enthusiasm for conservation is reflected in the way she approaches her work and I am very confident she will carry this project to success. I therefore strongly support Larissa and her ‘Fit Cheetahs’ project.”

Dr Eloise Koelmeyer BSc BVSc, Gungahlin Veterinary Hospital, Australia

“This research project, investigating whether relatedness can be determined by FIT in cheetahs, carries enormous possibilities for improving cheetah conservation. If a non-invasive, cost effective means to determine relatedness in this species is found, it could save cheetahs around the world. This technique, if successful, may also pave the way for saving other endangered species and therefore it is essential that this project gets the funding required.

I met Larissa Slaney while volunteering at Naankuse recently, so I was lucky enough to learn from and assist her with cheetah FIT. Her knowledge, determination and enthusiasm for her research project is inspirational and as a result, I strongly endorse this project.”

Stuart Munro, BSc (Honours) Zoology, Wildlife Research Biologist, Scotland & Namibia

“With human populations continuing to rise, the need for accurate population modelling with regards to planning conservation measures for vulnerable and endangered animals has never been as relevant as it is now in the 21st Century. Habitat loss due to human encroachment and land use-management, in conjunction with increasing levels of human-wildlife conflict as a result of competition for space and resources, have exerted unparalleled pressure on wildlife populations across the World.

This is certainly the case in the arid deserts and bushveldt of Namibia, southern Africa, which is estimated to hold approximately 25-33% of the World’s cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) population making it one of the last great strongholds of this unique big cat.

Cryptic and secretive, the cheetah is notoriously difficult to perform accurate population counts for. Covering large distances, with over-lapping home-ranges, population estimates may be artificially high due to individuals being counted multiple times from different parts of their range.

Therefore, the development of non-invasive techniques such as F.I.T. (Footprint Identification Technique) and genetic analysis of scat may be our best opportunity to model cheetah population to a high degree of accuracy. The fact that this does not require direct contact with the animal, removes unwanted stress factors. Furthermore, these non-invasive techniques may also give us vital information on the relatedness of individuals and thus the genetic variety and strength of distinct populations.

Much more research and study must be performed in these types of monitoring techniques if we are to have any hope in saving the last vestiges of wilderness, and the species they contain, before the rising tide of humanity swamps them and wipes them out forever.

I therefore welcome and support Larissa Slaney’s ‘Fit Cheetahs’ project”, which has the potential to make a real difference in animal conservation. And I look forward to working with Larissa again.”

 

Boel Nilsson, BSc Biology student, Gothenburg University, Sweden

“Conservation is important. It is thanks to the hard work of dedicated scientists like Larissa Slaney we are made aware of population trends, producing facts that allow policy makers to make informed decisions. However, without the support from people who believe in their research, many projects and potentially life changing discoveries risk to go unnoticed.

I believe in Larissa Slaney. I believe in her as a researcher and as an individual capable of making a difference. I believe in FIT and in her project – a project that holds great potential not only to reduce the need for invasive methods in wildlife population surveillance, but also to influence cheetah conservation practises globally. Don’t let this extraordinary project and these beautiful big cats become silenced.”

If you wish to donate a different amount to those specified and discuss an incentive, please contact Natalie@crowd.science or myself at www.fitcheetahs.com.

Select your pledge amount

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CONTINUE
  • 1 Backer

    Thank you! Every little helps! Follow my research by getting access to my blog. This will be updated on a monthly basis. 

  • 2 Backers

    'Personal Thank You' on Twitter and access to my blog.

  • 4 Backers

    £10 - Postcard from the researcher: I will write you a personal ‘Thank You’ postcard from Namibia and access to my blog.

  • 1 Backer

    Live Webinar: You will be invited to a webinar in Jan 2018 and recieve access to my blog.

  • 10 Backers

    Recieve a wristband with 'Fit Cheetahs' written on it and access to my blog and an invite to the webinar.

  • 2 Backers

    Exclusive seminar at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo - zoo entrance fee included and access to my blog. (only 80 tickets available); Attend my seminar and explore RZSS Edinburgh Zoo before or after. This seminar will be held during the day on a Friday or Saturday Jan 2018.

  • 4 Backers

    Exclusive evening seminar with drinks and nibbles at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland in Jan 2018. Come and attend my seminar in a relaxed atmosphere and enjoy a Q&A session afterwards. And you will get access to my blog too.

  • 1 Backer

    Limited edition A4 print of cheetah footprint artwork designed based on photos used in the research and access to my blog.

  • 3 Backers

    Limited A3 print of cheetah footprint artwork as above and access to my blog. 

  • 1 Backer

    Signed by researcher & artist limited edition A4 print of cheetah footprint artwork and access to my blog.

  • 2 Backers

    Signed by researcher & artist limited edition A3 print of cheetah footprint artwork and access to my blog.

  • 1 Backer

    Skype session with the researcher for schools and access to my blog. Buy a skype session for your school and let the pupils enjoy talking with the researcher and follow this fascinating cheetah project by getting access to the blog!

  • Backers

    Bronze Sponsor: Get your, your school’s or your company’s name onto the Sponsor page of my website www.fitcheetahs.com and Facebook page and get access to my blog.

  • Backers

    Silver Sponsor: As Bronze Sponsor and acknowledgement as a sponsor in my research articles; plus access to my blog.

  • Backers

    Gold Sponsor: As Silver Sponsor and acknowledgement as a sponsor in my PhD thesis.

1 Comment

  1. John Styles

    Myself and my wife were on a volunteering holiday at Naankuse Conservation in Namibia for our 26th wedding anniversary, when we were introduced to Larissa. We had been speaking to her and watching her do her work for just ten minutes, we both felt the passion and spirit she has for what she does. It was an absolute pleasure to be in this enclosure with Larissa and the Cheetahs, and learn so much about what she does. When you listen to somebody who loves and appreciates the wonderful position she is in to be able to spend time with such beautiful animals, it is so easy to learn from them. Larissa certainly has this.
    We will support her efforts in any way we can and wish her all the best. ” Keep doing what you are doing. You will make a difference” John & Lin Styles

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Select your pledge amount

£

CONTINUE
  • 1 Backer

    Thank you! Every little helps! Follow my research by getting access to my blog. This will be updated on a monthly basis. 

  • 2 Backers

    'Personal Thank You' on Twitter and access to my blog.

  • 4 Backers

    £10 - Postcard from the researcher: I will write you a personal ‘Thank You’ postcard from Namibia and access to my blog.

  • 1 Backer

    Live Webinar: You will be invited to a webinar in Jan 2018 and recieve access to my blog.

  • 10 Backers

    Recieve a wristband with 'Fit Cheetahs' written on it and access to my blog and an invite to the webinar.

  • 2 Backers

    Exclusive seminar at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo - zoo entrance fee included and access to my blog. (only 80 tickets available); Attend my seminar and explore RZSS Edinburgh Zoo before or after. This seminar will be held during the day on a Friday or Saturday Jan 2018.

  • 4 Backers

    Exclusive evening seminar with drinks and nibbles at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland in Jan 2018. Come and attend my seminar in a relaxed atmosphere and enjoy a Q&A session afterwards. And you will get access to my blog too.

  • 1 Backer

    Limited edition A4 print of cheetah footprint artwork designed based on photos used in the research and access to my blog.

  • 3 Backers

    Limited A3 print of cheetah footprint artwork as above and access to my blog. 

  • 1 Backer

    Signed by researcher & artist limited edition A4 print of cheetah footprint artwork and access to my blog.

  • 2 Backers

    Signed by researcher & artist limited edition A3 print of cheetah footprint artwork and access to my blog.

  • 1 Backer

    Skype session with the researcher for schools and access to my blog. Buy a skype session for your school and let the pupils enjoy talking with the researcher and follow this fascinating cheetah project by getting access to the blog!

  • Backers

    Bronze Sponsor: Get your, your school’s or your company’s name onto the Sponsor page of my website www.fitcheetahs.com and Facebook page and get access to my blog.

  • Backers

    Silver Sponsor: As Bronze Sponsor and acknowledgement as a sponsor in my research articles; plus access to my blog.

  • Backers

    Gold Sponsor: As Silver Sponsor and acknowledgement as a sponsor in my PhD thesis.