The cheetah is an incredible piece of evolution in the big cat family.
With a long, slender body specially built for speed, the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.
Also regarded as hunting leopards in India, the cheetah is of the genus Acinonyx. They are considerably smaller than other animals in the cat family, and in perspective, while a mature male lion could weigh up to 180kg, an average cheetah weighs between 45-60kg.
Cheetahs are generally tan in color, with black spots all over their body, with a white coat on their belly, chin, and throat. The color of their body could vary among regions and habitats. Cheetahs have about 2000 spots on their body, and the pattern of the spots is very unique, and these spots serve as a camouflage.
Cheetahs can be recognized by two unique black tear marks which run down from the corner of each of their eyes to their mouth. The tear marks are believed to emphasize facial expressions, and to increase the fierce look on the cheetah’s face, when under threat. The marks are also believed to protect the cheetah’s eyes from the sun by absorbing the sun’s rays, thereby giving the cheetah impeccable vision during the day.
Cheetah’s have a very long spotted tail, up to one third of their total body length. The tail is raised up by females in the savanna for the cubs to follow. The tail is used to steer while on top speed, and can be used to control the direction of sprint. Cheetahs are the only known big cat which can change direction while on top speed mid-air.
They possess a small round head with a flat face, with widely spaced eyes which are used for long range vision. The cheetah is known to see prey from as much as 5 km away, yes, that’s how amazing their eyesight is. They also have short whiskers.
Cheetahs have the ability to partially retract and extend their claws, which is achieved with the arrangement of their muscles.
Cheetah’s, unlike other big cats are nocturnal, and are mainly active during the day. They hunt throughout the day, and rest in groups at dusk. They are known to be very alert animals, and are always on the lookout, even when resting.
Cheetahs are social animals, and males often form groups called coalitions. These coalitions are usually made up of brothers who were weaned together in the same litter. Females are not as social as males however, as they prefer to be solitary. These groups are important as they serve as protection to cubs, and also reduces the dangers of predators. If a cub is the only male born to its mother however, it can join an existing group or form a coalition with other lone males in its vicinity. Cheetahs are territorial, and this ensures success in reproduction.
Cheetahs often rest on elevated plains like sloping trees and rocks, so as to observe their environment for either predators or prey. They use smell for communication, and will often mark territories with their scent. They are known to keep away from another cheetah’s scented territory, thereby reducing the number of times they engage in deadly fights. Because of their light weight and less sharp claws, cheetah’s are not poised to defend themselves adequately, and often avoid confrontation and will run away when approached by a more aggressive animal. They cannot roar either, and instead purr and use series of sounds like chirps and growls to communicate.
Breeding and Reproduction
Cheetahs reproduce more frequently than other big cats, with more cubs in a litter. Few weeks before a female cheetah is ready to mate, she excretes substances which are highly scented with hormones to attract males. If a female does not successfully get pregnant within the estrous cycle, the mating cycle repeats itself after about 10 days. Females can have cubs as often as every 16-19 months. When a female cheetah loses her cub, she will immediately begin an estrous cycle within an average of three weeks. Male cheetahs will court the females by sniffing the ground where she has been, and females will either repulse a male or accept him to mate. Depending on the female, a courtship period may last long or could be quite short. Cheetahs prefer to copulate at night, and will usually do this in thick bushes.
The period of gestation will last between 90-95 days. A female may have a litter of from a cub up to 5 cubs. They normally give birth in bushes, caves, or burrows of other animals. Dens are carefully chosen for protection of the cubs. The cubs are born blind, and could weigh from as little as 150g up to 350g. These low birth ways are to ensure that a pregnant cheetah is not slowed down much during pregnancy while pursuing prey. Their cubs grow and develop faster than the cubs of any other big cat. The cubs will open their eyes after about ten days, and can walk at three weeks.
Female cheetahs may relocate dens frequently due to many factors, and will carry their cubs by the nape of their neck. The cubs will begin weaning at around 6 weeks, around which point they start eating meat. Young cubs are very vulnerable at this period, as they could be left for long periods of time as the mother goes in search of food. By the time they attain the age of 6 months, they would be more aware of predators and can out-sprint most predators at this point. A cheetah female will attack even larger cats if she feels her cubs are threatened, and will often try to buy them time to escape. Female cheetahs are also known to adopt cubs that are not theirs, although she will often clearly distinguish the adopted cubs from her own. Male cheetahs do not take part in nurturing young cubs, as most females prefer to be solitary.
The cheetah’s physiology has incredibly evolved to adapt to sprinting at very high speeds. The body expands and contracts in a rhythmic way while it is in pursuit of prey. The cheetah has very long and straight limbs, with very powerful hind legs and a streamlined head. Its long tail keeps it balanced at top speeds, and its semi retractable claws helps it to grasp firmly to the ground while sprinting, to avoid falling over. They can reach top speeds of up to 110 to 120 km/h, and can accelerate from 0 to 80 km/h in just 3 seconds, amazing right?
During a chase, a cheetah’s respiration cycle could increase up to 150 times per minute, and they have a large nasal cavity to let in enough oxygen and pant through their noses while strangling prey.
Habitat and Population
Cheetahs are historically found in Africa, Asia, South Africa and India. Cheetahs were found throughout Africa and Asia, from South Africa to India. There are five different known species of the cheetah, the Asiatic cheetah, North-west African cheetah, South African cheetah, Sudan cheetah, and the Tanzanian Cheetah. They can be found in the savanna, open plains and woodlands. Their habitat is usually determined by the amount of prey and the relative lack of predators in the area. They are more successful and have higher mortality rates in areas which have less hyena and lion populations. Males often mark territories in strategic sites while females roam over large expanses of land and are mostly solitary. There is an estimated 7000 cheetahs in the Africa, while there are about 100 cheetahs reported to still be thriving in Iran. Most cheetahs live outside protected areas in Namibia, while in South Africa a good number of cheetahs live in the national parks. There are about 700 cheetahs in the Serengeti in Kenya, but the numbers keep diminishing due to the threats which have greatly reduced cheetah population in the world.
Cheetahs have been listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature IUCN as a vulnerable species, though some of its sub-species have also been listed as endangered species. One of the reasons why the numbers of cheetahs in the wild is diminishing is the encroachment of land by man for agriculture and other activities. Cheetahs are being restricted to areas where they might not fare increasingly well. Because cheetahs live outside protected areas to avoid predators like lions and hyenas, they are often killed by farmers. There is also a growing business of poaching cheetahs to be kept as cubs by rich individuals, or for their hides. The cheetah also has very rigid genetics and this makes it difficult for them to adapt to ecological and environmental changes, thus leading to their high mortality rates.
Although efforts are being made to save cheetah populations by setting up protected areas and conservation parks, cheetahs have high mortality rates in captivity, as compared to when they are released to the wild. A lot more needs to be done to ensure that these magnificent animals continue to thrive and survive for future generations.