Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus
The sleek cheetah has many physical traits that make it easily recognizable. It has a lean body, a small head, and long legs. A cheetah’s body is about four feet long, not including its tail, which can reach lengths of up to three feet. Cheetahs stand over three feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 75 to 125 pounds (34 to 57 kg), with males typically being slightly larger than females. A cheetah’s face is marked with dark lines called malar stripes or tear marks, which run from the inside corners of its eyes to the outside corners of its mouth. A cheetah’s coat is yellow to gold in color, has solid black spots, and is usually white on the underside of the chin and belly. Cheetahs have canine teeth that are smaller relative to other cats. A cheetah is the only large cat whose claws are always visible as they are only partially-retractable.
Cheetah cubs have a long, silver mane that runs from the back of the head and stops at the base of the tail. The sides and belly of a cheetah cub are very dark, almost black. This may be a form of mimicry that helps them avoid being picked on by other predators. The honey badger (ratel), an extremely aggressive member of the mustelid family which has few enemies due to its ferocious nature, is about the size of a cheetah cub (has black fur along its sides and belly) and has a silver mane that runs from its head to the base of its tail.
Many of the physical traits that make a cheetah so recognizable are actually adaptations that help make the cheetah the world’s fastest land animal. For instance, the length of a cheetah’s tail assists it to maintain balance when a cheetah is changing directions while running at top speed, which is 60 to 70 miles per hour (96.6 to 112.7 km/h). The reduced size of the cheetah’s canine teeth prevents the roots of a cheetah’s upper canines from growing into the nasal passage, which allows the cheetah to have a larger nasal aperture and permits for increased air intake. This air intake is critical to a cheetah’s recovery following a sprint. Finally, a cheetah’s partially retractable claws give the cat increased acceleration and better traction when running.
Because cheetahs rely on running to hunt for their prey, they are best adapted for life on grassy plains or savannas and this habitat is where they are most often found. However, cheetahs also make extensive use of bush, scrub, and open woodlands.
Cheetahs are most abundant in eastern and southern Africa, with a large population in the farmlands south of the Etosha region of Namibia and in the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. Smaller populations of cheetahs still exist in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but burgeoning human populations have heavily degraded their habitat. There is also a remnant population of cheetahs found in areas of the Middle East including Iran. They may also be found in Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.
The primary diet of cheetahs consists of small antelope (Thomson’s and other similarly sized gazelle and young wildebeest) that they bring down and suffocate after a spectacular, high-speed chase. Cheetahs rarely scavenge. They are opportunistic hunters and will prey on animals such as impala, warthogs, hares, and even domestic livestock, when their preferred prey is scarce. Because of their relatively small size in comparison to other predators in Africa, cheetahs commonly (as frequently as 50 percent of the time) lose their kills to lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild dogs.
Cheetahs are well adapted to living in arid environments and are not obligate drinkers. They seem to satisfy their moisture requirements from their prey’s blood and urine or by eating tsama melons.
Male cheetahs, usually siblings, live in lifelong groups called coalitions of two or three individuals. These coalitions live in territories that average 15 square miles (24 km2). A coalition will defend its territory aggressively against other male cheetahs. Males born without a brother will often attempt the very risky venture of joining an existing coalition.
Female cheetahs are usually solitary animals, except when they have cubs. They migrate in a large home range that is several times larger than the males, 321.5 square miles (517.4 km2) on average,
as they follow and hunt gazelle herds. Females do not defend their home ranges; they just seem to avoid other cheetahs. A female will come together with males only for breeding. Once breeding has taken place, the female will leave the male’s territory and will not return.
Cheetah gestation is usually 89 to 93 days. Cheetahs will typically have two to six cubs in a litter. Cubs are born blind, helpless, and completely dependent on their mother for survival. The large litter size may help cheetahs compensate for the high rate of infant mortality this species suffers due to predation from other large carnivores (such as lions, hyenas, and leopards) combined with high instances of illness and stillbirths.
Young cheetahs become independent between 1.5 to two years of age. At that time, the mother will leave her cubs. The male and female cubs stay together and live in what’s known as a sibling group until they become sexually mature. Cheetahs reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age. The females will leave their brother(s) and become solitary adults and the males will search for a territory to take over from older males.
Cheetahs are diurnal, which means they hunt primarily during the day. While chasing prey, the cheetah can reach speeds up to 70 miles per hour over short distances. Once the cheetah is within striking distance of its prey, it swipes at the prey’s hind legs with its front paw and strong dewclaw to trip and knock it to the ground. Then it closes off the prey’s windpipe to suffocate it. Exhausted after the chase, the cheetah must rest for a while to recover.
Threats to Survival:
The primary threat to the cheetah is competition with human beings. Increased human settlement and agriculture (habitat encroachment) limits physical space for cheetahs to live, breed and hunt. This habitat encroachment also pushes away the species that cheetahs usually prey on. As a result, cheetahs often turn to hunting livestock, causing direct conflict between humans and cheetahs, which cheetahs usually lose. In North Africa and Iran, severe depletion of the prey base has brought cheetahs very near to extinction.
A genetic bottleneck thousands of years ago has caused cheetah populations to be highly susceptible to illness, threatening their survival. Because of that bottleneck and subsequent inbreeding, all cheetahs are as genetically similar to each other as human identical twins. Therefore, cheetahs have almost zero variation in a part of their DNA called the major histocompatability complex (MHC), which codes for the immune response in mammals. With no variation in the MHC, all cheetahs are susceptible to the same viruses and pathogens, making the entire species a big bull’s eye for illnesses.
Thousands of years of inbreeding also had a negative effect on cheetah gametes. On average, male cheetahs have 70% malformed sperm. This number is incredibly high when compared to human males who are considered infertile with 20% sperm malformation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the cheetah as Endangered. It is protected under CITES, Appendix I, which bans international commerce. On the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as a Vulnerable species.
Cheetahs are managed as a Species Survival Plan (SSP) in AZA-accredited zoos. Zoos have historically had a difficult time breeding cheetahs, but success has increased significantly and the captive population is almost completely self-sustaining. There is constant work being done with cheetahs in the disciplines of behavior, nutrition, veterinary medicine and assisted reproduction that will help to ensure the survival of this species.
Cheetah SSP Coordinator
Adrienne Crosier, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Dusty Lombardi, Columbus Zoo & Aquarium
Cheetah Studbook Keeper
Erin Moloney, Busch Gardens Tampa
Promotion of livestock management regimes which minimize conflict with cheetahs are an important conservation measure, pioneered by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia and now being applied more widely. Elements of successful conservation management include availability of wild prey and more intensive livestock herd protection, especially using guard dogs.
Cheetah SSP, www.cheetahssp.org
Cheetah Conservation Fund, www.cheetah.org