by Greg Mayer
The king cheetah, known only from southern Africa, is a striking pattern variation of the common cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Instead of being spotted, the dark markings of the king cheetah coalesce into stripes and vermiculations, especially along the dorsal midline. King cheetahs are to common cheetahs as blotched tabbies are to spotted tabbies, not just in the similarity of the patterns, but in their genetic relationship: the king pattern is a variation within populations of the same species, and both patterns can occur in the same litter.
In 1927, R.I. Pocock of the British Museum named the king cheetah as a new species, Acinonyx rex, the holotype being a specimen at the Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In 1932 the zoologist Angel Cabrera suggested that the king cheetah was merely a coat pattern variant of the common cheetah. For many decades after that the question of the status of the king cheetah was unresolved, as few specimens were known, and genetic experiments on cheetahs not possible. Cryptozoologists became interested in the king cheetah as a ‘semi-cryptid’– a not quite undiscovered species of large mammal, but at least a mysterious one.
In the 1970s more king cheetahs turned up, and methods of captive breeding of cheetahs, developed for conservation purposes, had advanced to the point where it was possible to investigate the question. In 1986, R.J. van Arde and Ann van Dyk of Pretoria University and the National Zoo in Pretoria, South Africa, showed that the king coat pattern was due to a recessive mutation at a single autosomal locus, thus vindicating Cabrera’s hypothesis from 50 years earlier. King cheetahs are now found in several animal parks in South Africa, and can be easily seen and photographed.
The story of the king cheetah shows that even when a new species is described and named according to the best practices, including insuring a publicly available holotype, it doesn’t guarantee that the species so named is new. It might be a new species, but it might also be a geographic or within-population variation of a known species (the latter in the case of the king cheetah), or in some cases nothing new at all (as when the describer is unaware that a description had been published previously).