Kattie Willocks, of Balclutha Primary School, asks :-
Do all cheetahs have the same number of spot patterns?
Alex Davies, of Massey University's School of Veterinary Science, responded.
All patterned animals (whether spots, stripes or rosettes) have their own unique pattern - rather like fingerprints. So humans use the differences in cheetah markings to recognise individuals. Looking simply at the tails of cheetah the spots merge to form anywhere between four and six dark rings at its end.
However there are sufficient similarities between coat patterns in unrelated cheetahs thousands of miles apart for geneticists to postulate that today's animals descended from a few hundred animals. Further proof of a small gene pool comes from skin grafts between unrelated cheetahs taking. Normally the graft would be rejected.
There are also 'king cheetahs' that occur naturally in the wild. Initially this unusual streaked and blotched animal was thought to be a cross with the rosette-spotted leopard. Genetic testing proved this was no so. Instead, a gene called the 'tabby gene' produced the strange markings. This is the same gene that controls the tabby markings in domestic cats. King cheetahs are the same species as normal cheetahs and can breed with each other or with similarly marked cheetahs; young cubs of both types result. Because the gene is recessive king cheetahs can be born to a seemingly normal cheetah pair who carry the tabby gene.
Interestingly while the cheetah has a spotted body with a striped tail there are no animals with striped bodies and spotted tails.