It can reach a speed of 100km/h in just three seconds, is extremely light in weight and aerodynamically streamlined, and can cover nine metres in just one stride at almost four strides per second. For more than half of every stride, it is airborne. Everything about the cheetah contributes to making it the fastest mammal sprinter on earth. This marvel of evolution has fascinated scientists for decades and it is a very popular species to study.
In captivity, these animals are quite unusual in that they frequently suffer from chronic diseases, primarily of the gastrointestinal tract and kidneys, which are rarely seen in their wild counterparts or in any of the other big cat species. An inflammatory condition of the stomach known as lymphoplasmacytic gastritis affects the majority of captive cheetahs. While other big cats do suffer from kidney disease, captive cheetahs frequently also have a form of kidney damage known as glomerulosclerosis, which resembles the damage caused by diabetes in humans. This is mysterious because the cheetahs studied do not have diabetes.
Dr Adrian Tordiffe, from the Department of Paraclinical Sciences in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria (UP), has been intrigued by these diseases in captive cheetahs since his days working as a clinical veterinarian at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa. While many veterinarians and researchers before him have postulated potential reasons for these diseases – such as low genetic diversity, vulnerability to stress, lack of exercise and possible nutritional deficiencies – clear causal mechanisms were very unclear and the incidence of disease in these animals remained high. Tordiffe suspected that in order to better understand the intricacies of the problem he would have to think outside the box and adopt a more holistic approach in his study. He set out to find answers using methods developed in the field of metabolomics.
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