The Cat Survival Trust
Acinonyx jubatus Schreber
Photo: Wendy Oakley
Famous as the “fastest thing on four legs” the cheetah is very different from all the other cats. Its greyhound-like body has evolved for speed. A lightweight body on long legs and an exceptionally flexible spine combine to substantially increase their stride lengths. It has the longest limbs and lumbar portion of the spine of any felid. The long tail acts as a counterbalance when cornering.
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A cheetah’s feet are adapted to enable greater purchase on the ground while running. They have tough foot pads which are ridged, like tyre treads and the exposed claws act as running spikes. Interdigital webs are greatly reduced so the toes can be spread widely for improved traction.
Unlike those of other cats, a cheetah’s claws are always exposed. Cats evolved retractable claws because they provide an evolutionary advantage by protecting their sharpness. Cheetahs can retract their claws, but they lack the cutaneous lobes, which act as claw sheaths. For this reason a cheetah’s claws are blunt. For the first 15 weeks of life young cheetahs can fully sheath their claws like any other cat. Afterwards they remain exposed.
Enlarged dew claws on the inner sides of the lower front legs are used to hook into the flank of a pursued animal. This pulls it off balance so the cheetah can grasp it by the throat for a killing bite. The victim’s trachea is clamped shut rather than pierced.
There are doubts as to whether the cheetah exceeds 90 kmh-1 or 56 mph, but they probably can go a bit faster in short bursts. The maximum, widely quoted but unsubstantiated, is 110 kmh-1 (68 mph). An antelope or a gazelle can run about 60 to 80 kmh-1, and the fastest human sprinters about 37 kmh-1
Cheetahs have small heads and short muzzles with wide nostrils. The nostrils characterise the face of the cheetah. They enable a greater volume of air to be drawn into the lungs when sprinting. The nasal passages have to be sufficiently wide to enable the cheetah to breathe more easily when holding their prey with a suffocating bite.
The skull appears to be delicate and thin boned. It is very domed; the crown is relatively higher above the jaw than in any other felid. Compared to a leopard, their canines are much less well-developed. The small anterior upper premolar is often absent in the cheetah. When present, it completely fills the narrow space between the canine and the second premolar. This is unusual among cats, which characteristically have post canine spaces (the gap between the front and rear teeth). A cheetah’s jaws are short and close very tightly.
Pale yellowish, tawny yellow, greyish or fawn in colour, cheetahs are covered in small round dark spots. Their fur is short and coarse. The coat colour becomes paler on the belly and on the insides of the limbs. The upper lip, chin and throat are buffy white. Their black ears are short and rounded have a tawny bar at the tip. The tail is spotted above, pale below and ringed towards the white tip.
A cheetah’s whiskers are rather smaller than those of most cats because they hunt by sight alone. Occasionally confused with leopards, cheetah are considerably more slender and they have pronounced black lachrymal or tear stripes which run from the anterior corners of the eyes down beside the muzzle. Unlike the leopard, a cheetah’s spots are not arranged in rosettes.
King cheetahs were once believed to be a separate species. Their coats are distinct in that they are blotched and stripey. These markings are the result of a rare occurrence of an identical pair of recessive alleles for coat pattern. King and normal colorations are found in the same litters. The Moghul Emperor Jahangir owned a white cheetah which had bluish spots.
Also known as the “hunting leopard”, in parts of the Middle East, cheetahs were the favourite hunting companions of the rich. They were used in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC, in the Third Egyptian Dynasty, and by the Minoans. The Crusaders saw gazelles hunted with cheetahs. Their name is derived from a Hindi word “chita” meaning spotted one.
The cheetah is distinct from the other cats, and has been designated its own unique genus, Acinonyx. Generally, it is considered to have an undetermined taxonomy, referred to as incertae sedis. About five million years ago, in the Pliocene Epoch, the prehistoric cheetah is believed to have diverged from the ancestors of the other large cats. Their pupils are, as in the Panthera cats, round. Large and small cat groups have sometimes been separated on their ability to either roar or purr continuously. Roaring requires thick fibroelastic pads on the vocal cords (Why Big Cats Can Roar. Cat News 11, 1989, p. 17). Small cats and the cheetah do not have them. The hyoid apparatus, which supports the tongue, is fully ossified or bony, in the cheetah and the small cats. This is believed to aid purring.
Recent work on the molecular biology of cats suggests that the cheetah#146;s closest relative is the puma. The precise meaning of this and its possible effect on felid taxonomy is not yet clear.
Six subspecies of cheetah are described but they are not all generally accepted:
Cheetahs are remarkably genetically similar, subspecies definitions are often the subject of considerable systematic controversy. Blood protein analysis suggests that differences between cheetah populations are trivial. Classifications are sometimes of doubtful validity. Indian cheetah, declared extinct in 1952, were very similar to the African subspecies but were somewhat smaller and slimmer. Asian are more distinctly marked, with a thicker more club-like tail and a larger, whiter light tip to the ear. East African cheetahs are rather more yellow than the others which are pale dull fawn. (M. Karami 1992. Cheetah Distribution in Khorasan Province, Iran. Cat News, 16, p. 4.)
|A. j. raineyi|| Kenya|
|A. j. soemmeringii|| Nigeria to Somalia|
|A. j. venaticus|| Southern Asia, Transcaucasia, North Africa (Asiatic Cheetah)|
|Head and body lengths (cm)||104-147||104-147||112-127|
|Height at shoulder (cm)||65-88||65-88||85|
|Tail lengths (cm)||63-88||65-88||63-80|
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Cheetahs are found in relatively open habitats, grasslands and semi-deserts and never in dense forests or thick bush. They require unobstructed views of their quarry. Originally they were widespread throughout all suitable regions of Africa, Palestine, Syria, northern Arabia, Iraq, Iran, south Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Punjab, west Bengal and central India south to Mysore, but never north of the Ganges or east of Bengal. They used to have a very wide distribution in the open grasslands of central India and in south west Asia. There is also a relict population of about 200 individuals still surviving in Iran and possibly northwest Afghanistan/Pakistan. Only the east and southern African cheetah populations exist in any numbers. The Indian cheetah became extinct this century.
The map shows the present distribution of Cheetahs in grey.
This map is based on information in the Wild Cats Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan published by the IUCN/SSC Cat Speialist Group in 1996. See our Books page for more details.
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Cheetahs prey on medium sized ungulates, about 20 to 50 kg in size. They also hunt the calves of the larger animals. In East Africa this includes Thompson’s gazelle, impala and Grant’s gazelle. In South Africa, in the Transvaal and Kruger areas, they prey on impala, in Zambia, puku, and in Namibia, springbok. 90% of prey animals taken by cheetahs in the Serengeti are Thompson’s gazelles. Cheetahs have been observed to feed on hares and guinea fowl, hartebeest, zebra yearlings, topi, dik dik, kudu calves, reed-buck and water buck.
Prey preferences are strongly dependant on the size and ages of the individual cheetah in the hunting party. A single male will take 20 kg Thompson’s gazelles, but is capable of pulling down a wildebeest (160-270 kg). Coalitions of two or three males will hunt wildebeest. Team hunting success is not greater than that of individuals, but much more meat is available to each member. Cheetah hunting methods are extremely demanding but are rewarded by very high hunting successes.
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The pursuit distance of a cheetah is limited by its ability to store heat in its body. The theoretical maximum distance a cheetah can sprint is 500 metres. After this the body temperature reaches a lethal limit. There are very few recorded chases greater than 400 metres. Adult gazelles are chased for about 290 metres and fawns 190 metres. Chases generally last for 20 seconds. After sprinting for food they are practically incapacitated for almost half an hour as they recover. Approximately half of the attempts are successful. Once a cheetah has eaten and left a kill it rarely comes back. They are low in the predator hierarchy, and are too timid to investigate possible sources of food such as carrion. Scavenging is unnecessary for them, and would be dangerous. They are unable to safeguard their own kills. They may lose up to 12% of their kills to lions. Wild dogs and hyaenas are also significant competitors. Even vultures have been observed to see them off. Cheetahs are not sufficiently strong to lift their victims into trees, unlike leopards. Lacking sharp claws, adult cheetahs climb poorly.
Adult females are not territorial, but they do avoid each other. Several related or unrelated females may share large home ranges which overlap. Most female cats maintain exclusive ranges. Female cheetahs may range over 800 km2 and in the Serengeti they follow the annual migration of the Thompson’s gazelles. These areas are too large to be patrolled and defended.
Adult male litter-mates sometimes remain together in small groups or coalitions. They defend a small territory, more than five times smaller than those of the females. Unrelated males may also join together, in contrast to other cats. Two to four males in a coalition are able to defend a territory which will attract females; lone individuals are unable to because they face too much competition. Groups of male cheetahs suffer less harassment from spotted hyaenas and rival males.
Males mark territories with boundaries enclosing an area about 40 km2. They delineate these ranges with scent marks, spraying trees with urine and rubbing their cheek scent glands on grass stems and rocks. They also cheek-rub to deposit their saliva. These boundaries do not change even after the occupier has been replaced. Territories are only abandoned when no prey or water is available in the dry season. They contain a certain amount of cover, tall vegetation or a rocky outcrop. Large expanses of short grass plains are unsuitable for occupation and are often used as boundaries between territories.
At any one time there is a maximum of ten territories on the border between the Serengeti and the woodland. Competition for these sites is severe, many males are killed, hence, the evolution of coalitions in this region. Very high male mortality has altered the sex ratio so there are two females to every male. In this area a single male can only become the owner/resident of a territory if there are few competing coalitions or one becomes vacant. These costs are very high but so are the benefits.
During the Thompson’s gazelle migration, female cheetahs gather temporarily in the male territories, and are available for mating. In addition, the food supply is highly concentrated. Coalition males are not any more likely to meet and to mate with females than non-territorial males. However, they are on average about ten kilogrammes heavier than lone males. Therefore they are healthier, live longer and thus gain a higher lifetime reproductive success, i.e. they father more offspring.
Adolescent cheetahs and lost cubs have been known to parasitize unrelated adults, taking food from them. This may be as a result of the high degree of interrelatedness their populations display. Behaviour varies with the prey base. In the Kruger National Park in South Africa, there is no Serengeti-like migration. Females hold territories similar in size to the males, and coalitions do not form.
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Oestrus or mating receptivity lasts for five to fourteen days. A male cheetah will stay with a female for several days, mating three to five times a day. All males in a coalition will mate. As many as eight cubs, or more usually three to five, are born after a gestation period of 90 to 95 days. Weighing 250 to 300 grammes at birth, the cub’s eyes open in four to 11 days and they begin to walk by 13 days. They get their first teeth by 20 days. At six weeks they follow their mother, and begin to eat meat. Then the female will bring small prey items to the cubs so that they can practice their hunting and killing techniques. Weaned at six months, the cubs leave home at 13-20 months. Siblings may remain together for several months longer. Males disperse much further than females, often more than 20 km.
The back of a young cheetah is covered with a long woolly bluish-grey mane, which helps to conceal it and make it less conspicuous to potential predators on the open savannah.
Young cheetahs have dark spotting on their undersides. Complete dorsal spotting develops as they completely lose their manes by four months.
The only defence the mother has is to hiss and spit or to try and lead potential cub-killers away. She will move the cubs to a new den site every five days or so. As she returns to her offspring, she will wait until dark before joining them. When prey is scarce, the cubs may be left for more than 48 hours. If their mother is unable to eat enough to meet the demands of lactation, the litter will be abandoned.
It takes about three years for a Serengeti cheetah to become a fully proficient hunter. They often fail to crouch down and so are often seen. They also run too early and abandon the chases prematurely.
Female cheetahs reach sexual maturity at 22 months; males mature in about 33 months. Captive cheetahs live for more than 15 years. Cheetahs have large litter sizes compared to most of the other felids. This is a strategy to maximise their reproductive success. If the mother loses the litter she can come back into oestrus within days.
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Cheetahs live at low densities compared to other predators They have never been very numerous. Cub mortality is so high that populations are limited by the number of young which can be raised to maturity. In the Serengeti 90% of all cheetah cubs die before they are three months old.
Persecution, habitat loss, over-hunting of their prey and competition from other predators are all factors responsible for the continuing decline of the cheetah. They are extremely susceptible to changes in land use.
National Parks and other areas where wildlife is protected may be expected to help the cheetah. However, where other predators are encouraged, cheetah populations suffer from competition. 50% of adult males may be killed by lions. Therefore they tend to be more numerous outside reserves where they are more vulnerable to human persecution. Their main problem is conflict with people.
In Namibia, where the largest populations of cheetahs are found, more than 95% live on private ranchlands. Illegal slaughter occurs in the misguided belief that cheetah prey on livestock. They do seem to be able to tolerate human activity, but they are susceptible to disturbance. There have been reports that tourists have alerted game to the presence of these predators.
Good physical condition is absolutely essential for a cheetah. Even slight injuries which reduce a cheetah’s sprinting abilities may prove fatal. Heavily pregnant females have considerable difficulty hunting. Lions are responsible for a significant proportion of adult cheetah mortality and diurnal activity allows them to be shot relatively easily.
Low sperm counts and high proportions of abnormal sperms contribute to the poor breeding performances of cheetahs in captivity. This results from the genetic homogeneity of the species. At the end of the last Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago there was a massive population crash. Few individual cheetahs survived, consequently very little genetic diversity exists in their populations. There is ten to one hundred times less genetic variation in cheetahs than is observed in the other cats. This remarkable similarity has never been seen in a free ranging wild population. They are therefore extremely susceptible to disease. Recent outbreaks of feline infectious peritonitis have been recorded. This causes one to five percent mortality in domestic cats, and 50 to 60 percent in cheetah. Proposals for breeding hybrid cheetahs to encourage diversity have been made. Outbreaks of cowpox have been recorded in captive populations.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Asiatic cheetah A. j. venaticus as Critically Endangered, the Northwest African cheetah A. j. hecki as Endangered and other cheetahs as Vulnerable. (Cat News 23,1995, p. 21)
International commerce in cheetah products has been prohibited under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Conservation and Legal Status of Wild Cats. Cat News 12, 1990, p. 26).
In 1992, D. and L. Marker-Kraus in the Cheetah Preservation Fund Report, (Cat News 17, p.12-14) estimated that there were between 9,000 and 12,000 individuals remaining in the wild. The Namibian population is about 5,000.
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A captive breeding programme needs to have regard to keeping separate the various subspecies, while at the same time avoiding the dangers of inbreeding.
National Zoological Park
DC 20008, USA
This is achieved by the maintenance of a studbook which is used to select suitable breeding partners for captive animals. Such studbooks are maintained on a voluntary basis by dedicated individuals or teams at various zoos around the world.
Zoos which have cheetahs
Cheetah News: (newsletter) Zoological Society of San Diego, Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species, San Diego Zoo, Box 551, San Diego CA, 92112, USA.
Latest update: 4th December, 1999
© September 1996 The Cat Survival Trust, The Centre, Codicote Road, Welwyn, AL6 9TU, England.
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