The conventional wisdom about cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) is wrong, according to new discoveries that could have wide-ranging impacts on conservation of the world's fastest land animal.

First of all, the long-held belief that cheetahs had little genetic variation throughout their range appears to be false. A study published January 8 in Molecular Ecology reveals that cheetahs in Asia—specifically Iran—are a subspecies that separated from their African cousins 30,000 to 70,000 years ago. The last 100 or so Iranian cheetahs, now dubbed A. j. venaticus, should be considered a conservation priority, the authors of the paper concluded.

"We are running out of time to save the Asiatic cheetah," Alireza Jourabchian, director of Iran's Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah program, said in a prepared statement. "We have been successful in stabilizing numbers in Iran but we still have a long way to go before we can consider this unique subspecies secure. We are hopeful these new findings will bring even greater attention to its plight."

Iran's remaining cheetahs are threatened by overhunting of their prey by humans, habitat degradation and poaching.

Meanwhile, the two African cheetah subspecies (A. j. soemmeringii in the continent's north and A. j. jubatus in its south) are also further apart genetically than previously believed.

This actually makes it even harder to conserve the Iranian cheetahs. If they were the same species or subspecies, African cats could be imported to Asia to renew and expand the isolated Iranian population. But because we now realize that African and Asian cheetahs are different subspecies, the Iranian population must remain pure for its unique genetic material to be preserved. Relocating African cheetahs to Iran "would promote interbreeding between the forms and thereby dilute the genetic distinctiveness of the Asiatic cheetahs," which probably evolved to suit their habitat, said one of the paper's authors, Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

The new study took five years and also involved researchers from several national science bodies, universities and conservation groups. Another of the paper's authors, Antoinette Kotze, manager for research and scientific services at South Africa's National Zoological Gardens, told Times Live in Johannesburg that it was a "long and arduous project" involving gathering DNA samples from the wild, zoos and museums in eight countries.

All cheetahs remain threatened by habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade. Last month, a cheetah escaped from its captors in the United Arab Emirates city of Sharjah, where it panicked worshippers at a local mosque before it was caught and placed in a wildlife sanctuary.

Speaking of relocation, India is slowly moving forward on its plan to reintroduce cheetahs to that country. India's ministry of forest and environment has chosen two sites for reintroduction, but locals protested that the cats could be a danger to people, tourism and the oil industry. But R. K. Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, disagrees, telling The Times of India that "bringing the cheetah to the Shahgarh Bulge will not affect tourism or oil exploration in the region." India's original plan was to source cheetahs from multiple locations, including Iran, but that might need to be revisited now that the new subspecies has been recognized.

Photo via Wikipedia