It's not every day we get to welcome a baby cheetah into the world. Much less seven.
But at the National Zoo's Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), it seems to be raining cubs. Proud first-time parents Erin and Rico delivered the mewling, fuzz-covered cubs last week — making it a grand total of 53 cheetahs born at the Virginia-based facilities since 2010.
And while the rest of us swoon at these bouncing bundles of fur, scientists are toasting a major victory in the struggle to keep these big cats around.
Human conflict, habitat loss and illegal trade have reduced the number of cheetahs in the wild to around 7,100 cheetahs, mostly cloistering them to narrow swathes of Sub-Saharan Africa.
A 2016 study suggests that a further half of those numbers will disappear within the next 15 years. And is those statistics that make cheetah births at scientific facilities like SCBI so vital.
"It is really exciting to have such a large and healthy litter of cubs, especially from first-time parents," Adrienne Crosier, a biologist at SCBI, noted in a press release.
"A global self-sustaining cheetah population in human care is becoming even more important with the continued decrease of animal numbers in the wild."
A question of diversity
If the current trend is any indication, cheetahs are going to need all the helping humans hands they can get. But a big reason for their decline, surprisingly, isn't even our fault.
When the last Ice Age ended about 11,000 years ago, the cats faced a debilitating absence of genetic diversity. As a result, subsequent cheetah generations became increasingly plagued by disease, genetic mutations and infertility.
Factor in human activity and cheetahs seemed to be on the long, slippery slope to extinction. The animals have been listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List for 30 years.
But scientist have been working on a lifeline. As part of the Breeding Centers Coalition, researchers at SCBI have been using new breeding techniques to widen their gene pool.
And in that respect, the birth of this most recent litter is a major milestone.
The cubs' mother, Erin, boasts a set of enviable genes: They're not common among captive cheetahs, and in passing them down to so many children, she's effectively expanding the breeding potential for future generations.
"We want to make the best matches possible," Crosier said. "We need these populations to survive long into the future."