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Africa
Location
3.5 to 4.5 feet (1.1 to 1.4 meters)
Length
21-72 KG110 to 140 pounds (50 to 64 kilograms)
Weight
Carnivore (Eats Meat)
Food
Savanna
Habitat
60-70 miles per hour (97-113 kilometers per hour)
Speed

About

#Big Cats #Carnivores #Mammals

The Cheetah, scientifically known as Acinonyx jubatus, is a magnificent big cat species found primarily in Africa, with a small population also inhabiting Iran. It belongs to the Felidae family within the Animal Kingdom’s order Carnivora, which also includes other felines like lions, tigers, and leopards.

Cheetahs are renowned for their exceptional speed and agility, capable of reaching speeds of up to 60 to 70 miles per hour in short bursts, making them the fastest land mammals. They have slender, aerodynamic bodies, long legs, and a distinctive spotted coat ranging from golden-yellow to tan, adorned with solid black spots. Their tear-shaped black marks running from the inner corners of their eyes down to their mouths help reduce glare from the sun and aid in hunting.

As specialized predators, cheetahs primarily hunt during the day, relying on their keen eyesight to spot prey from a distance. They favor open grassland habitats, where they can use their speed to pursue and capture swift ungulates such as gazelles and impalas. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs have smaller heads and non-retractable claws, adaptations suited for their unique hunting strategy.

Conservation Needs and Status

Cheetahs face numerous conservation challenges, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and a decline in prey species. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies cheetahs as vulnerable on the Red List. Population estimates suggest there are around 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild, scattered across Africa and Iran.

Conservation efforts aimed at protecting cheetahs involve habitat preservation, anti-poaching measures, community engagement, and education initiatives. Captive breeding and reintroduction programs also play a role in bolstering cheetah populations. However, addressing human-cheetah conflicts and ensuring the sustainable management of habitats remain critical for the long-term survival of this iconic species. Continued monitoring and concerted conservation actions are essential to secure a future for cheetahs in the wild.

Threatened:
Extinct
Critically Endangered
Endangered
Vulnerable
Near Threatened
Least Concern

Physical Characteristics

Cheetahs are known for their distinctive and sleek appearance:

  • Coat: Cheetahs have short, coarse fur that is tan to light golden in color. Their coat is covered in solid black spots, which are evenly distributed across their body. The spots often merge into elongated lines on their backs and sides.
  • Face: They have a small head with black “tear tracks” running from the inner corners of their eyes down to their cheeks. These tracks help reduce glare from the sun and improve their focus on prey.
  • Body: Cheetahs have a slender, elongated body with long legs and a deep chest. Their legs are built for speed, and they have non-retractable claws, which provide extra traction during sprints.
  • Tail: They possess a long, muscular tail with distinctive black rings at the end. The tail helps with balance and stability during high-speed chases.

Size:

  • Length (Body and Tail): Cheetahs typically measure about 3.5 to 4.5 feet (1.1 to 1.4 meters) in body length, with an additional 2.25 to 3.5 feet (0.7 to 1.1 meters) for the tail.
  • Shoulder Height: They stand approximately 28 to 36 inches (71 to 91 centimeters) at the shoulder.

Weight:

  • Adult Female: Adult female cheetahs usually weigh between 100 to 140 pounds (45 to 64 kilograms).
  • Adult Male: Adult male cheetahs are slightly larger, with weights ranging from 110 to 160 pounds (50 to 73 kilograms).

Cheetahs’ physical characteristics are adapted for their incredible speed and agility. Their lightweight build, long legs, and non-retractable claws are evolutionary adaptations that allow them to be the fastest land animals on Earth, capable of reaching speeds of up to 60 to 70 miles per hour (97 to 113 kilometers per hour) in short sprints.

feature-image Fur
feature-image Tear Marks
feature-image Paw

Reproduction

The reproductive cycle of cheetahs involves several stages, including mating, gestation, and the birth of cubs. Here is an overview of the cheetah’s reproductive cycle:

1. Mating and Courtship:

  • Cheetahs are generally solitary animals, and males and females come together primarily for mating purposes. Mating pairs can form relatively loose associations.
  • Mating can occur throughout the year, although some regions may have peak mating seasons.

2. Gestation:

  • The gestation period for cheetahs is relatively short, lasting approximately 90 to 95 days, or roughly 3 months.

3. Birth of Cubs:

  • Female cheetahs typically give birth to a litter of cubs, with the average litter size ranging from 3 to 5 cubs. However, litters can vary in size and may consist of as few as 1 or as many as 8 cubs.
  • The mother usually finds a secluded den or hidden location to give birth and raise her cubs.

4. Care and Nurturing:

  • Cheetah cubs are born blind and helpless, and they weigh about 10 to 15 ounces (280 to 425 grams) each.
  • The mother provides care, including grooming, protection, and nursing. She often moves her cubs to different hiding places to keep them safe from potential threats.

5. Weaning and Learning:

  • Cheetah cubs begin to open their eyes and develop mobility at around 10 days of age.
  • The mother starts to introduce solid food to the cubs when they are about 3 to 4 weeks old, and weaning typically occurs at around 2 to 3 months of age.
  • As the cubs grow, the mother teaches them essential hunting and survival skills, such as stalking and chasing prey.

6. Independence and Dispersal:

  • Cheetah cubs become more independent as they mature, usually staying with their mother for about 12 to 18 months.
  • Subsequently, they disperse and establish their territories, with males often becoming more solitary than females.

The reproductive cycle of cheetahs is adapted to their unique circumstances as solitary hunters. The relatively short gestation period and multiple cubs in a litter help ensure the survival of the species despite the high mortality rate of cheetah cubs in the wild. Conservation efforts are essential to protect cheetah populations and their habitat to ensure the long-term survival of this incredible species

Lifespan

The lifespan of cheetahs can vary depending on whether they live in the wild or in captivity, as well as other factors like habitat conditions, predation, and human-related threats.

In the Wild:

  • In their natural habitat, cheetahs typically have a lifespan of around 10 to 12 years on average. However, many cheetahs do not reach their full potential lifespan due to various challenges they face in the wild.

The Biggest Threats to Wild Cheetahs:

  1. Habitat Loss: Habitat loss due to human activities, such as agriculture, urban development, and infrastructure expansion, has resulted in a significant reduction of suitable cheetah habitat.
  2. Human-Wildlife Conflict: Cheetahs often come into conflict with humans, especially when they prey on livestock. Retaliatory killings by farmers and herders can pose a major threat to cheetah populations.
  3. Poaching: Illegal poaching, driven by demand for cheetah skins and body parts, remains a significant threat to these big cats.
  4. Low Genetic Diversity: Cheetahs have limited genetic diversity, which makes them susceptible to diseases and reduces their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions.
  5. Competition with Other Predators: Cheetahs often lose their kills to larger predators like lions and hyenas. These confrontations can result in injury or death for cheetahs.

In Captivity:

  • Cheetahs in captivity, such as those in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, often have longer lifespans compared to their wild counterparts. They can live into their late teens or early twenties with proper care, nutrition, and medical attention.

It’s important to note that not all captive environments are the same, and the quality of care and living conditions can vary widely. Some cheetahs may face health issues and reduced lifespans in poorly managed or substandard facilities.

Conservation efforts are crucial to address the numerous threats facing wild cheetah populations, including habitat protection, conflict mitigation, anti-poaching measures, and genetic management to maintain the health and diversity of their populations. Protecting these incredible creatures and their natural habitats is vital for their long-term survival.

Eating & Hunting

Cheetahs are carnivorous predators with specific eating habits that are well-suited to their role as the fastest land animals. Here is a description of the cheetah’s eating habits:

Diet:

  • Cheetahs primarily prey on small to medium-sized ungulates (hoofed mammals), with a particular preference for gazelles. The species of gazelle targeted by cheetahs can vary depending on their geographic range.
  • In addition to gazelles, cheetahs may also hunt impalas, springboks, hares, and other small to medium-sized mammals.

Hunting Strategy:

  • Cheetahs are diurnal hunters, which means they are most active during the day. Their hunting strategy relies on speed and stealth.
  • They use their excellent eyesight to spot potential prey from a distance, often from an elevated vantage point like a termite mound or low tree branch.
  • Once they’ve identified a target, cheetahs stalk their prey, getting as close as possible without being detected.
  • Cheetahs are known for their incredible burst of speed, which they use to chase down prey. They can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in just a few seconds, making them the fastest land animals.
  • Unlike many other large predators, cheetahs do not typically have a powerful bite. Instead, they rely on suffocation to kill their prey by clamping down on the throat.

Sprint and Exhaustion:

  • Cheetahs are sprinters and can only maintain their incredible speed for short distances, usually less than a minute.
  • After a high-speed chase, cheetahs can become overheated and exhausted. They need a significant amount of time to rest and cool down before they can eat their kill.

Hunting Success:

  • Cheetahs are not as successful in their hunts compared to other big cats. Their speed is their primary asset, but it often comes at the cost of stamina and endurance.
  • It’s estimated that cheetahs only succeed in about 50% of their hunts, making them vulnerable to scavengers and other predators that may steal their kills.

Solitary Behavior:

  • Cheetahs are typically solitary hunters and do not form prides or social groups like lions. Solitary hunting reduces competition for food.

Cheetahs’ specialized hunting abilities and unique adaptations, such as their incredible speed, have allowed them to carve out a niche as specialized predators in their ecosystems. However, their vulnerability during and after hunts makes it crucial for them to avoid confrontations with larger predators that might steal their kills.

Uniqueness

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a unique and remarkable big cat with several distinctive features that set it apart from other large felids:

  1. Speed Demon: Cheetahs are renowned for their incredible speed and are the fastest land animals on Earth. They can reach speeds of up to 60 to 70 miles per hour (97 to 113 kilometers per hour) in short sprints, covering distances of 1,500 feet (460 meters) or more in just seconds.
  2. Slender Build: Cheetahs have a sleek and slender build, with long legs, a lightweight body, and a small head. Their adaptations for speed include non-retractable claws, specialized respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and large nasal passages for efficient oxygen intake.
  3. Distinctive Coat: Cheetahs have a tan-colored coat covered in unique solid black spots. Their “tear tracks,” or black lines running from the inner corners of their eyes down to their cheeks, help reduce glare from the sun and enhance their focus on prey.
  4. Diurnal Predators: Unlike many other big cats, cheetahs are primarily diurnal (active during the day) hunters. They rely on their excellent eyesight to spot prey from a distance.
  5. Specialized Hunting Strategy: Cheetahs employ a high-speed chasing strategy to capture prey. They use their extraordinary acceleration and top speed to run down and overwhelm their quarry, rather than stalking and ambushing like many other predators.
  6. Lone Hunters: Cheetahs are typically solitary hunters, and mothers raise their cubs alone. This solitary lifestyle reduces competition for food but leaves them vulnerable to scavengers that may steal their kills.
  7. Unique Reproductive Behavior: Female cheetahs often have their first litters at around 20 to 24 months of age, which is relatively young for big cats. They can give birth to 3 to 5 cubs in a litter. Male cheetahs rarely participate in raising cubs.
  8. Vulnerable Species: Cheetahs are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and a lack of genetic diversity. Their populations have declined significantly in the wild.
  9. Limited Vocalizations: Cheetahs communicate primarily through vocalizations, including purring, growling, and chirping. They have fewer vocalizations compared to some other big cats.
  10. Efficient Predators: Cheetahs are highly specialized predators, and their adaptations for speed and daytime hunting make them efficient at capturing agile prey like gazelles.
  11. Conservation Focus: The conservation of cheetahs has garnered significant attention due to their vulnerable status. Efforts to protect their habitats and mitigate human-wildlife conflicts are crucial for their survival.

Cheetahs’ unique blend of physical adaptations, behaviors, and ecological significance makes them a captivating and charismatic species, but also underscores the importance of ongoing conservation efforts to ensure their survival in the wild.

Vulnerability

The cheetah is a susceptible species for extinction.  Of course the traditional challenges of human encroachment threaten it, however, there are other vulnerabilities it faces.

Low Genetic Diversity: Cheetahs have a limited genetic diversity due to a population bottleneck in the past, making them more susceptible to diseases and other environmental challenges.

Vulnerability: Despite their incredible speed and hunting prowess, cheetahs are considered vulnerable and are facing various threats in the wild, including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching

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FAQ’s

1. How fast are cheetahs?

Cheetahs are known for their incredible speed, making them the fastest land animals in the world. They are capable of reaching speeds between 50 to 70 miles per hour (80 to 112 kilometers per hour) for short bursts, typically covering distances of up to 1,500 feet (460 meters). These sprints can last for about 20-30 seconds.

Cheetahs’ speed is a result of their specialized physical adaptations, including lightweight bodies, long leg bones, and large nasal passages for efficient oxygen intake. They also have non-retractable claws and specialized paw pads that provide traction, similar to the spikes on a sprinter’s shoes. Their large nasal passages help them breathe better during a sprint.

While cheetahs are incredibly fast, they have limited endurance and can overheat during prolonged chases. As a result, they often rely on short and rapid bursts of speed to capture prey. Cheetahs are primarily solitary hunters, and their incredible speed is essential for catching and securing their prey, which typically includes small to medium-sized ungulates like gazelles.

2. What is the difference between a cheetah and a leopard?

Cheetahs and leopards are both large cats, but they have several distinct differences:

  1. Physical Appearance:
    • Cheetahs are known for their unique spotted coat with solid black spots on a tan background. These spots are evenly distributed across their body.
    • Leopards, on the other hand, have a rosette pattern on their coat, which consists of open, irregularly shaped spots with no central dots. The background color of a leopard’s coat can vary from pale yellow to gold.
  2. Size:
    • Cheetahs are slender and built for speed. They are typically smaller than leopards, with a body length of about 3.5 to 4.5 feet and weighing between 110 to 140 pounds.
    • Leopards are more robust and powerful. They are larger than cheetahs, with a body length of about 3.5 to 6.25 feet and can weigh between 70 to 160 pounds, depending on their habitat.
  3. Behavior:
    • Cheetahs are known for their incredible speed and are the fastest land animals. They are primarily solitary animals and prefer open grassland habitats. Cheetahs rely on their speed to chase and capture prey, often targeting small to medium-sized ungulates.
    • Leopards are strong and adaptable predators known for their ability to climb trees. They have a more varied diet, including a wide range of prey, from small mammals to larger ungulates. Leopards are known to hoist their kills into trees to avoid scavengers.
  4. Habitat:
    • Cheetahs are typically found in open savannas and grasslands, as their hunting strategy relies on open spaces for sprinting.
    • Leopards have a broader range of habitats, including savannas, forests, mountains, and deserts. They are highly adaptable and can thrive in various environments.
  5. Hunting Style:
    • Cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day) and rely on their speed and stealth to stalk and chase down prey.
    • Leopards are more opportunistic and are known to be crepuscular, which means they are most active during dawn and dusk. They often use their strength and climbing ability to ambush prey.
  6. Social Behavior:
    • Cheetahs are mostly solitary, with males forming small groups, often consisting of brothers from the same litter.
    • Leopards can be solitary, but they are also known to be more territorial and can have larger home ranges.

In summary, cheetahs are known for their speed and distinctive spotted coat, while leopards are adaptable, powerful climbers with a rosette-patterned coat. Their behavior, habitat, and hunting styles also differ, making them unique among big cats.

Sources
  • Britannica, Cheetah, https://www.britannica.com/animal/cheetah-mammal, Retrieved November 2023
  • Burnie, David & Wilson, Don, Animal, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC
  • Hickman et al, Integrated Principle of Zoology, McGraw Hill, Boston