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For years, scientists have known that North America was once the Africa of its day. The continent had our own elephants (ok, mastodons), camels, and rhinos, among other megafauna.

Now, scientists have determined that cheetahs originated in North America, but 100,000 years ago experienced an unforeseen population bottleneck that forced them into Asia via the Bering Land Bridge and eventually into Africa.

Writing in the journal Genome Biology, the team of researchers, led by Stephen O’Brien from Saint Petersburg State University in Russia and Nova Southeastern University in Florida, sequenced the genomes of seven living cheetahs and determined they descended from a relative of American pumas.

As a result of the bottleneck, cheetahs have been left with the curse of low genetic diversity, which is characterized by difficulty reproducing, even in captive conditions, and frequently deformed sperm. Today, cheetahs are listed as a "vulnerable" population by Red List.

The cheetahs that remained in the U.S. were no more lucky, eventually getting wiped out when glaciers began retreating, an event that also devastated populations of other large mammals like saber-toothed tigers.


“I don’t think they were much different from the animals we see today, they developed into a sprinting hunter in North America," O'Brien said according to the Guardian. "It’s interesting that we lost about 40 species at the end of the ice age, including pumas and cheetahs. The pumas came back from South America and the cheetahs were fortunate to migrate into Asia and then into Africa. They have remained a top predator, unless they have had to deal with humans, of course.”

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.