Genetic diversity is the number of different genetic characteristics in a population. This means that a population with a high genetic diversity has more variations on a single gene within the group of species mating. Some individuals are short, some are extra hairy, and some may have big feet. The genetic diversity within a population helps give the species a higher chance of survival because their ability to adapt to changes in the environment are greater. A species with a low genetic diversity has much greater risks for becoming endangered or even extinct because the the smaller the gene pool, the more inbreeding and genetic disorders occur.
Cheetahs are notorious for their low genetic diversity. This has lead to a variety of problems for the cheetah, principle of which is the poor quality of sperm that makes it difficult to perpetuate the species. Birth defects are also common, which further handicap the cheetah, who already have an alarmingly low survival rate of 5% into adulthood. Yet another danger of low genetic diversity is the inability to adapt to and survive specific diseases of viruses. A large percent of a cheetah population can be wiped out by a single virus that none are equipped to fight. The decline of the cheetah cannot be attributed to their low genetic diversity, however, the violent tendencies of adult males to kill cubs that are not their own and other self-destructive traits of the species, in addition to increasingly volatile environmental factors are largely to blame. Scientists note that while the cheetah lost its diversity thousands of years ago, they have not showed major signs of decline until recently.Low genetic diversity is generally perceived as a barrier in the ability of a species to reproduce and proliferate effectively. We followed the history of two cats, the Iberian Lynx and the cheetah, to track the influence of low genetic diversity. The Lynx has been relatively unaffected while the cheetah faces endangerment and potentially extinction due to problems stemming from their lack of genetic diversity.
The Iberian lynx, the most endangered cat species in the world, has similarly low genetic variation as their cheetah relatives. Their population has been declining over the years but surprisingly, this drop in numbers is due to outside factors more so than their shallow genetic pool.
A study conducted by Love Dalén concluded that although the Iberian lynxes are teetering on the edge of extinction, their genetic variation has been lacking throughout its history. This means that it is not due to their small genetic diversity that they’re going extinct. Dalén thinks that the Iberian lynx is a special case and that other species could not have survived as long with such few genetic options.The Iberian lynx has a short fluffy tail, large ears, and a tuft of fur beneath their chins. These predatory cats once lived over the entire Iberian Peninsula but are now only found in small areas of southern Spain. Their numbers are dropping due to loss of food resources and habitat range. There are only 38 breeding females in the wild.
This means that while species with low genetic diversity are at a much higher risk for endangerment and extinction, it is no reason to give up on their survival.