Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum:  Chordata

Class:  Mammalia

Order:  Carnivora

Family:  Felidae

Genus:  Acinonyx

Species:  jubatus

Status

Of all felids, cheetahs seem to be the least able to adapt to new environments.  Cheetah cubs have a high mortality rate due to genetic factors and predation by other carnivores.  Cheetahs are on the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species List as an endangered species.  Approximately 12,400 cheetahs remain in the wild in 25 African countries.  Another 50 to 60 critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs exist in Iran.  International Union for the Conservation of Nature Status: Vulnerable; population decreasing

Description

The cheetah’s chest is deep and its waist is narrow.  They have short tan fur with spots.  The tail has spots that merge to form four to six dark rings which usually end in a bushy white tuft.  Cheetahs have a small head with high-set eyes.  Black “tear marks” run from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth to keep sunlight out of its eyes and to aid in hunting and seeing long distances.  Cheetahs weigh from 80 to 140 pounds.  Their total body length is from 45 to 53 inches and they average 35 inches tall.  Some cheetahs have a rare fur pattern mutation and are known as ‘king cheetahs’.  This mutation results in cheetahs with larger, blotchy, merged spots.

Adaptations for speed

  • Cheetah’s paws have semi-retractable claws and hardened, grooved pads which give them extra grip in high-speed chases.
  • Enlarged nostrils allow for increased oxygen intake.
  • Enlarged heart and lungs work together to circulate oxygen efficiently.  During a typical chase respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute.
  • Cheetahs use their tails as rudder-like means of steering to allow them to make sharp turns necessary to outflank prey that often make such turns to escape.
  • Extremely flexible spine allows the cheetah to nearly fold in half for portions of its stride and stretch out for others.

Habitat and Range

Current populations of cheetahs live in isolated populations in Africa or Southwestern Asia.  Cheetahs prefer to live in open landscapes, such as semi-desert and prairie habitats, although they can also be found in grasslands, savannahs, areas of dense vegetation, and mountain terrain.

Diet

Cheetahs are carnivorous, eating mainly mammals under approximately 90 pounds, such as Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, springbok, and impala.  Cheetahs are diurnal hunters.  They hunt either early morning or later evening.  Cheetahs hunt by vision rather than by scent.  Running at speeds up to 70 mph, the chase lasts an average of 20 seconds.  High-speed hunts have a 50% success rate.  Cheetahs trip their prey with sharp, curved dew claws and then bite it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it.

Reproduction

Females reach maturity in 20 to 24 months.  They give birth after a 90-day gestation.  Average litter size is three to five cubs, though up to nine is possible.

Behavior

Females are solitary and tend to avoid each other.  Mothers leave their cubs at 18 months, in time for estrus; siblings stay together for up to six more months.  At about two years, the female siblings leave the group; males may remain together for life in a group called a coalition.  However, a team of researchers in Kenya in 2012 observed mothers with young from multiple litters, suggesting possible social behavior (Wykstra, personal communication).

Wow!

  • Cheetahs are the fastest species of land mammal in the world reaching speeds of 70 mph in short bursts.
  • Cheetahs have the ability to accelerate from 0 to 45 mph in the first three strides.
  • A single stride may cover 22 feet.
  • Cheetahs are fully airborne twice in each stride.  All other 4-legged animals are only airborne once per stride.
  • Cheetahs lack the ability to climb and the strength to fight larger predators due to their adaptations for speed.