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Biological Sciences

June 26th, 2011

Raw Speed and Beauty: The World of the Cheetah

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Written by: Cendan Luis
Tags: , cheetahs, , , ,

Though Africa is known for its varied collection of extraordinary predators, few animals are as extreme as the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Possessing a beautiful, slender design and acceleration abilities rivaling the fastest of automobiles, the cheetah is both striking in its appearance and lethality. As the fastest of all land mammals, the cheetah is a fierce predator which can hunt down even the most agile of prey, some of them creatures that formidable predators such as hyenas and lions struggle to successfully hunt.[1] However, the cheetah also lives a life of danger. In a land dominated by predators much larger and more powerful than this fast cat, the cheetah must be able to learn quickly in an unfair ecosystem where every day is a struggle for survival. Although the cheetah is comparatively fragile in design, it possesses the same spirit of survival that its larger rivals share. These nimble cats ultimately find ways to coexist with their lethal neighbors while maintaining themselves and their families. For the cheetah, risks and dangers are just a part of everyday life.

The cheetah is an incredibly agile creature which can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Scotch Macaskill

Though nowhere near the size of large cats such as lions, cheetahs are still fairly big cats, reaching a height of almost 3 feet at the shoulders and a weight of up to 140 lbs. Their fur possesses a yellow or tan coloration with many black round or oval spots present throughout the body, while the throat and abdomen are white. The tail ends with 4-6 black rings (these ring patterns help differentiate cheetahs from other felines) and a white, bushy tuft. The cheetah’s head is small and its eyes are set high with black tear-like marks running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the cat’s mouth. Their teeth are quite small, especially compared to the fearsome dentition that larger felines are designed with.[2]

The current distribution of the cheetah is quite insignificant compared to the previous extent of its range. Cheetahs were once widely distributed throughout Africa, and the populations also reached into the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor, and even east of India. Their fossil remains point to an even wider distribution, with cheetah fossil remains recorded to be found from China, Northern India, Southern Europe, and also as far as the Western United States. Their modern day distribution is almost tragic in comparison, with the species now sparsely scattered amongst Namibia, Kenya, Asia, and a handful of small countries.[3]

Cheetahs are threatened with extinction. Photo credit: Stolz, Gary M/

The world’s remaining cheetahs survive in lands teeming with a great variety of prey. The cheetah may be too small to hunt larger animals such as buffalo, but it can certainly overpower smaller prey such as gazelles, wildebeest calves, impalas, and other similarly sized animals.[4] Some of these animals, such as gazelles and impalas, are very agile animals that will leave most predators in the dust should the herbivores spot them. In order to avoid a tough hunt, the cheetah will, like most predators, scan a herd for animals which are old, weak, or very young. These animals will be the slowest of the herd, making the hunt much easier for the predator. Once the cheetah selects a target, it slowly makes its way towards the herd, camouflaging itself against the savannah’s tall grass. After closing in on its target, the cat readies itself and sprints out from its cover. The herd quickly reacts and the animals run from the incoming predator. Even a sick impala or gazelle can prove to be a fast target, but the cheetah’s design is all about speed. Non-retractable claws and tough paw pads (which are less rounded than in other felines) provide excellent traction and allow the cheetah to make quick turns. Large nostrils, lungs, liver, heart, and adrenals help the cat’s body to keep up with the activity. Its streamlined body, supported by light bones, is well designed for reaching high speeds, while the cheetah’s long tail makes an excellent rudder. Even the cat’s eyes are designed for speed, with the cheetah’s elongated retinal fovea providing it with a sharp, wide-angle view of its surroundings. As the entire body works to help the cheetah maintain this heightened level of activity, the spine works much like a spring for the back legs, allowing the cheetah to cover as much ground as possible with each sprint.[5] These characteristics all come together to create an extremely efficient runner which can reach a maximum speed of 70 miles per hour. Yet even for an animal like the cheetah, these high speeds can only be maintained for short spans of time. This, along with the fact that many of the animals which cheetahs prey on are very elusive themselves, results in tough chases where the outcomes are usually uncertain.[6] The intense chases can last anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute, and only half of these hunts result in successes for the cheetah.[7] If the cheetah manages to reach its prey, it will knock the quarry down with its paws. The cheetah then slams its paws down on the ground, using its claws and specialized paw pads to tear into the ground and bring itself to an almost instantaneous halt.[8] The cheetah then quickly turns around and bites onto its fallen target’s throat, suffocating the animal (a killing method used by other felines, such as lions and leopards).[9]

Impala are common prey for the cheetah. Photo Credit: Scotch Macaskill

This magnificent hunting design makes the cheetah a deadly hunter, but life is often difficult for these creatures. In exchange for raw speed, the cheetah possesses a fairly fragile body. In a highly competitive ecosystem abounding with larger, more powerfully built predators, the cheetah faces very tough opposition. A cheetah can do little to defend its kill from predators such as lions or leopards, and so must surrender its food to the larger animals. Battling the challengers is a suicidal move, as the cheetah cannot afford to suffer heavy injuries; an injured cheetah is unable to chase down its usual prey and often dies from starvation. Since cheetahs are often driven away from their kills, they must eat as quickly as possible once they successfully hunt an animal. Indeed, cheetahs must hunt more often than other big cats in order to attain the nutrition they need, and this results in the loss of more energy.[10] The stress of this lifestyle adds up over time, resulting in a shortened lifespan which averages out at 4 or 5 years in the wild (in places where cheetahs do not encounter as much stress, such as zoos, their lifespans can reach up to 15 years).[11]

It is not unusual for lions to steal kills from cheetahs. Photo Credit: Scotch Macaskill

There is no cheetah mating season. Instead, the cats breed throughout the year.[12] Though they are mainly solitary and peaceable animals, males sometimes fight over females and have even been known to kill each other.[13] A victorious male eventually appears, and the new pair mate. After a gestation period lasting around 95 days, the female cheetah gives birth to anywhere from one to six cubs, though the average litter consists of four or five cubs. The cubs are entirely helpless and open their eyes for the first time around seven to ten days after birth. At the age of five weeks, the young cheetahs begin to show an interest in meat, though they are not actually weaned until they are about 3.5 months old. During this time, the cubs are extremely vulnerable. In fact, many cheetah cubs are killed by predators such as hyenas, leopards, and lions. The survivors remain with their mother for 18 months or so before they become independent and leave to begin solitary lives.[14]

The cheetahs face a great danger due to inbreeding (when members of the same family or close relatives breed among themselves). This problem arose when cheetah populations were greatly lowered several thousand years ago by extreme climate changes. All but one species of cheetah (the remaining Acinonyx jubatus) were wiped out. The A. jubatus population, though it managed to survive, was greatly lowered in number. As a result, the remaining cheetahs were forced to interbreed, eventually leading to the genetically inbred cats present today. The genetic variation among cheetahs is quite small; though individuals within most other species normally share about 80% of the same genes, today’s cheetahs share around 99% of the same genes. This is dangerous, as it results in low survivorship (many cheetahs dying in the wild), poor sperm quality (abnormal sperm cells cannot swim properly and thus have difficulty reaching and fertilizing egg cells), and greater susceptibility to diseases. Disease is a particularly great threat, as the lack of genetic diversity means the entire cheetah population can struggle to adapt to sudden epidemics. This mutual vulnerability among the entire species may one day lead to its extinction should a sufficiently deadly virus come about and affect the cheetah population. Zoos take care to increase genetic diversity in cheetahs by only allowing unrelated animals to mate. Also, scientists are currently working on ways to enhance breeding via artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. During artificial insemination, for example, scientists place sperm cells in the reproductive tract of the female. This results in less distance for the sperm to swim in order to reach the eggs. These methods have proven successful and have produced cheetah cubs in the United States.[15]

Cheetahs face a great number of threats, but it is still possible for humans to intervene and save the species from extinction. Photo Credit: Scotch Macaskill

Unfortunately, the cheetah also faces other threats to its survival. The continuous loss of its natural habitat combined with a reduction of the cheetah’s prey base due to commercial hunting makes it even more difficult for these cats to survive in the wild. As a result, the predators are forced into conflicts with livestock farming. This, in turn, leads to the killing of the cheetahs by farmers who try to defend their livestock from predators.[16]Live exportations of the animals as well as cheetah sport hunting add more stress to the remaining population, though they have been strictly controlled in recent years.[17] Cheetahs, along with other predators, are essential in the maintenance of ecosystem health as they control the population numbers of herbivores. The loss of these magnificent predators results in a more damaged ecosystem, which can eventually harm humans living in the area as well.

The cheetah is a predator like no other. Its beautiful yet deadly design makes it among the most unique and amazing of predators. Unfortunately, threats of both natural and artificial causes continue to put pressure on the future of these big cats. A better understanding of the needs of these creatures and their environment can help to save the last remaining cheetah species from extinction. Fortunately, concern for the future of many endangered species has grown over the years, and the cheetah is no exception. The cheetah, with its beauty and incredible design, deserves a place in this world. The loss of the cheetah would certainly be among the most tragic of extinctions.

[1] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 22 June 2011.

[2] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 23 June 2011.

[3] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 23 June 2011.

[4] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[5] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[6] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[7] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[8] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[9] “General Information About the Cheetah .” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[10] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[11] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[12] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 June 2011.

[13] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 24 June 2011.

[14] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 June 2011.

[15] “Genetic Diversity.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 June 2011.

[16] “Race For Survival .” Available from Internet; accessed 26 June 2011.

[17] “Cheetah.” Available from Internet; accessed 26 June 2011.

About the Author

Cendan Luis
Luis Cendan is the chief editor and writer for the Vertebrate Journal. Author & Co-founder, [email protected]



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