A body built for speed
The cheetah is a large feline with a light skeletal frame and a slender long legged body. They have a small head with high set-set eyes and a tan coat with over 2,000 solid round black spots. Cheetahs are the fastest creature on land, during a chase they can reach speeds of up to 100 km/h. They have a long tail that serves as a rudder when they turn corners at high speed. When the cheetah turns a corner into one direction the tail will flick into the other direction to keep the body balanced.
Unlike other cats, cheetahs have blunt, semi-retractable claws that serve as a pair of running spikes and provide traction when chasing prey. Another trait that distinguishes cheetahs from most other cats is that they predominantly hunt during day light (diurnal). They have very good eyes that are adapted to diurnal high speed hunting in open terrain. The black tear marks, which run from the corner of the eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth, help to keep the reflection of the sun out of the cheetahs eyes.
During high speed chases the body temperature of a cheetah can increase up to almost lethal levels (40.5°C). This means at some point cheetahs will have to stop their chase in order to prevent themselves from overheating.
Cat like carnivores are thought to have separated from the dog-like carnivores approximately 55 million years ago, with modern felids appearing in the late Miocene (± 10.2 million years ago). Cheetah are the only member of the Acinonyx genus and modern cheetahs are thought to be amongst the oldest cat species. Remains of cheetah and cheetah like cats discovered in Africa, Eurasia and North America haven been dated approximately 3 million to 10 000 years ago.
The cheetah has an unusually low genetic diversity and is thought to have undergone a genetic bottle neck ± 10-12 000 years ago. As a result, cheetah have poor sperm quality and low sperm counts. This genetic monomorphism does not seem to be detrimental to fertility nor the survival of free ranging cheetah populations.
Cheetah are habitat generalists and can be found in many different habitats ranging from open plains, woodland, savannah to thick bush. Habitat preference is often determined by abundance of prey and a lack of other large predators. Cheetahs tend to avoid areas with high prey densities, probably to avoid large predators like lions and hyenas that can be found in these areas. Cheetah males are often social and hold small territories while cheetah females are solitary and have large home ranges. Sizes of territories and home ranges can vary greatly (37-3000 km2). The males scent-mark their territory and defend it against intruders, whereas females tolerate other cheetahs in their home range that often overlaps with home ranges of other cheetahs.
Females move across several male territories annually and are highly promiscuous, which can result in females giving birth to a litter with cubs from different fathers. Cheetah males can often be found in groups of two to three, these are usually brothers that have formed a coalition that will stay together for life. Adult cheetahs mostly kill medium sized antelopes (15-30 kg) but small animals like birds and hares are also an important part of the diet.
In the wild, cheetahs become approximately 11-12 years old. When the females are two years old they can give birth to their first litter. Mating occurs throughout the year, the gestation period is 90-95 days and litter sizes range from 3 to 5 cubs. Females raise their cubs one their own. The cheetah cubs are born with their black spots and a Mohawk type mane that is shed as the cheetahs grow older. During the first two months of their life the cheetah mother leaves her cubs behind in a lair when she goes out to hunt. Cheetah cubs are often killed by larger predators such as lions and spotted hyenas and leopards and cub mortality can be as high as 95%. The cheetah mothers are not able to defend their cubs against these larger predators.
The cubs stay with their mother for more than a year, during this time the mother teaches the cubs how to hunt and avoid other predators. When the cubs are between 18 and 22 months old the mother leaves them behind. The cubs usually stay together in sibling groups for several months before the males and females go their separate ways. Brothers stay together in a male coalition, while sisters leave the group to establish their own home range.
Females are mature at the age of 24 months while males are mature around 12 months, although males do not usually mate before they are 3 years old. The cheetahs social system with solitary females and social males is unique among cats.
Scientific: Acinonyx jubatus*
Local: Ihlosi, Dindingwe
*Acinonyx means 'claws that don't move' in Greek, jubatus means 'maned' in Latin, the latter is probably a reference to the mane of cheetah cubs
© Jane Hunt
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Life span and body size
Life span in the wild:
Mature body weight:
*Males are generally slightly larger than females but there is no great variation in sizes
Cheetahs are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature meaning they are one step away from being endangered
© Stephanie Periquet
Cheetah with cubs
© Laurie Simpson
Cheetah marking territory