The endangered cheetah exhibits relatively little genetic variability (polymorphism = 0.02-0.04, heterozygosity = 0.0004-0.014). Its survival may be compromised by the loss of genetic diversity. The genetic uniformity is believed to be the result of an historical population bottleneck followed by a high level of inbreeding. The author, however, questions the assumption that the present level of genetic diversity in the cheetah is indicative of a loss of former variability. Carnivores exhibit significantly lower levels of genetic variation than other mammals, and several carnivores exhibit lower levels of heterozygosity and polymorphism than the cheetah does. Measures of fluctuating asymmetry do not support the hypothesis that the cheetah is suffering an increased level of homozygosity due to genetic stress. Many of the pheotypic effects attributed to inbreeding depression, such as infertility, reduced litter sizes, and increased susceptibility to disease, are limited to captive individuals and may be explained as physiological or behavioural artifacts of captivity. The genetic constitution of the cheetah thus does not appear to compromise the survival of the species. Conservation efforts may be more effectively aimed at a real, immediate threat to the cheetah's future: loss of natural habitat.
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