Nashville Zoo recently discovered an awkward surprise. Niran, the first clouded leopard to be born from an artificial insemination procedure using frozen/thawed semen was examined thoroughly at birth and determined to be a male. Only, he is actually a she.
The discovery was made after keepers noticed that Niran was not developing at the same pace as Kuso, a male clouded leopard of the same age. Kuso was brought to the Zoo in May to be a playmate for Niran. The two have been on exhibit together since August. Closer examination of Niran confirmed keepers’ suspicions.
Most species of newborn cats, particularly smaller and medium size species, can be difficult to sex due to undeveloped genitalia. Some individual specimens can be particularly problematic. Numerous experienced staff at the Zoo concluded Niran was a male at birth. Nashville Zoo has produced over thirty cubs and this is the first time a cub has been incorrectly sexed.
Thankfully, the error is a happy surprise. There is an imbalance in the ratio of young males to females within the Clouded Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP) which carefully manages breeding in order to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining captive population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. There were sixteen surviving cubs born in 2017 with only six females. The best chance for reproductive success in clouded leopards occurs when pairs can be introduced before they are one year old. The fact that Niran is a female will allow her to now be paired with one of these additional males that did not have a mate. While Niran and Kuso are buddies, the SSP will be pairing her with a more genetically valuable male in the near future.
In late 2016, doctors from Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute successfully performed an artificial insemination procedure on Tula, one of Nashville Zoo’s female clouded leopards using semen that had been frozen and then thawed. Niran was consequently born on March 1, 2017 signifying a giant step for global conservation efforts.
Nashville Zoo and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute have a long history of working together on clouded leopard conservation. Since 2000, they have collaborated with Point Defiance Zoo and Thailand’s Zoological Park Organization to form the Clouded Leopard Consortium and develop breeding programs as well as field monitoring projects for clouded leopards in Thailand. Because the captive clouded leopard population is not self-sustaining, it necessitates the need for intensive reproductive management techniques like artificial insemination to maintain captive populations not only in the U.S., but also throughout the world.