Species Facts: The Cheetah


Cheetah = speed. Also, these cats look incredibly cool, even at rest.

But why are they so different from the rest of the cat family?

Experts have been trying to figure that out for almost 250 years now, and they’re still hard at work. Along the way, they’ve uncovered some interesting facts about cheetahs that most of us never knew.

Scientific name:

Acinonyx jubatus.

That’s a mouthful, but these Latin words refer to two amazing cheetah characteristics.

First, Acinonyx means “non-moving claws.” (Cat Specialist Group)

Cheetah claws, unlike those of most other cats, have no protective skin sheath. They work perfectly well but look as though the cheetah can’t retract its claws.

Unsheathed claws soon get blunt. That’s a plus for cheetahs. It gives them “running spikes” and, therefore, a surer footing as they race over the ground during a sprint.

The meaning of jubatus is “crested” or “maned.” (Cat Specialist Group)

Oh yes, cheetahs do have a mane — well, hairs about twice as long as the rest of their fur, running from their head down the back of the neck to their shoulders.

It’s more noticeable in adolescents but shows up in adults, too.

Cheetah cubs, on the other hand, look like this:


This ‘Mohawk’ makes the youngster hard to see in grass. It will last about 10 weeks and then gradually disappear, leaving behind a barely noticeable crest on mature cheetahs. (Image: Maggie Meyer/Shutterstock)


A sad fact of life in the wild is responsible for the evolution of this amazing look: fewer than a third of all cheetah cubs survive to adulthood.

Other carnivores, particularly lions, get the rest. Out on the Serengeti, the figure is higher — only 10% of Serengeti cheetah cubs make it.

Mom does her best, but no cheetah can fight off such attacks. Instead, she must hide her cubs for their first two months of life, moving them frequently and keeping a sharp eye out for predators.

If the cubs get through their first four months, the chances of their reaching maturity are much better.

However, many female cheetahs never succeed in raising cubs to adulthood. Those that can do this, whether through excellent predator avoidance skills or some other factor, sometimes go on to found “dynasties” that can last for several generations! (Durant et al., 2010)

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.

The king cheetah spot mutation. (Image: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0)

  • Weight: 80 to 140 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 28 to 35 inches — taller than a leopard, but shorter than a lion. (Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 3 feet 8 inches to 4 feet 7 inches.
  • Tail length: 2 to 3 feet.
  • Coat: The short, coarse fur has a tawny background covered with dark spots. Per Ewer, someone once counted 1,967 spots on a cheetah! (Some animals in southern Africa have the “king cheetah” mutation, which broadens the spots and links some of them up into short stripes. And in 2011 an unspotted cheetah was seen in Kenya). According to Krausman and Morales, underparts are generally pale or white, while the tail has a white tip; its upper surface is spotted, and a series of dark rings mark the last third of the tail fur. Another typical cheetah feature is facial “tear lines,” a single dark line extending from the inner corner of each eye down to the outer corner of the cat’s mouth. Ewer suggests that this might be used to direct social grooming, since cheetahs often groom each other’s faces, while Wikipedia contributors speculate that perhaps the tear lines work as sun shields or even as individual identification.
  • Vocals: Cheetahs don’t roar; they purr, a lot like a domestic cat, but much louder. A 7-year-old cheetah named Caine was recorded in 2009 and could be heard easily 130 feet away! (Eklund et al.) This is what his purr looked (and sounded) like on a sonogram.

    Per Wikipedia, the cheetah has other Fluffy-like sounds in its repertoire, but it also chirps and makes other calls. Since this is adorable, let’s listen to a few of them:





    This might be the most relaxing video you’ll see today.


  • Average litter size: 4 to 6 cubs.
  • Average life span: In the wild, about 12 years for males and 14 years for females. (Durant et al., 2010) In captivity, cheetahs can live up to around 20 years.

Features unique to this cat:

Hoo boy! Where to start?

Let’s save the one we all know for last and start with some of the other unique cheetah features.

  1. That cub mane. The envy of hedgehogs and honey badgers everywhere, it’s technically called a “mantle” and runs from the forehead to the tip of the tail. No other cat species sports this type of hairdo.
  2. Those tear lines.

    There are a lot of spotted cats out there. How do you know this is a cheetah? Exactly. (Image: Ted, CC BY-SA 2.0)


    Now, if Science could only figure out what cheetahs use these for . . .

  3. Social organization. Lions have prides, but most other cat species reportedly are solitary. Upon reaching adulthood, the male cats disperse in search of territory while she-cats generally settle down close to Mom. Females build their territories around food resources, while males establish larger territories that include several female territories.

    Cheetahs are very different.

    A male coalition in the Maasai Mara. (Image: Ray in Manila, CC BY 2.0)

    Siblings hang together for about six months after they leave the den; typically, the females then go their own way and start having litters, but the males may form a coalition that lasts for life. Some males are also solitary, like the females (when not accompanied by cubs), but it’s the coalitions that usually get territory. Oddly enough, females never establish territory but wander through several male territories; they’re also very tolerant of the presence of unrelated females. For that matter, coalitions sometimes accept unrelated males. Males do fight from time to time, but rarely to the death. Perhaps it’s their precarious existence, but whatever the reason, cheetahs as a whole have an unusually laidback approach to peer interactions.

  4. The only pursuit hunter in Family Felidae. Tens of millions of years ago, the ancestors of wolves and some other predators decided to specialize in chasing prey across open plains, while the ancestors of cats preferred to stay in close to the forest edge, retaining some of the tree-climbing skills that most early mammals probably had.

    Now cheetahs are still typical cats — they use cover, for instance, and are quite skilled stalkers. Their famous wind-sprint is just an extreme version of the well-known feline capability, even in Fluffy, for rapid acceleration from a standing start.

    But there have been tradeoffs over the last 3 million years of cheetah development. They no longer climb very well. Their ankle joints are a compromise between those of a canid and a cat, and their claws, except for the dewclaw, are “worn down like those of a dog” (Ewer); cheetah elbows are more like those of a pursuit predator (Hudson et al., 2011); and their very narrow paws are similar to a wolf’s. (Heptner and Sludskii)

    This doesn’t mean that cheetahs are turning into canids — that’s never going to happen for many good reasons. But they do seem to be exploring those wide open spaces beyond the forest’s edge. I can’t help but wonder what will happen next, should cheetahs hang out there for another three million years.

  5. Fastest land mammal. Just how fast can a cheetah run? Numbers vary by source, but everyone agrees that it’s at least 60 mph. It can only maintain that for a few hundred feet, though.
  6. The need for speed has shaped many of the cheetah’s unique skull and skeletal features.

    Here we go: (Update: This evening I noticed that the video didn’t play back, as it did when I tested it before scheduling. Here’s another video, and check this director’s cut out for beautiful slow-motion views of the cat running.)



    Where found in the wild:

    Light pink: Historic range. Darker colors: Present range. (Image: Al Pereira, via Wikimedia, public domain)

    Cheetahs range across open grasslands, savannahs, dry forests, arid places, open woodlands, and shrublands in sub-Saharan Africa, with small populations in the northern and western regions of that continent. There are also an estimated 80 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran’s central deserts.

    As you can see, they have lost about 90% of their historic range, mainly due to loss of their prey base due to human activities as well as capture for use in hunting.

    Additional factors, and the main threats cheetahs face today, are habitat loss, illegal trade, and persecution for preying on livestock.

    There aren’t a lot of cheetahs out there now — fewer than 7,000 adults, all told, living in 29 known subpopulations — but they do have a wide distribution in southern and eastern Africa, with strongholds in Namibia/Botswana and Kenya/Tanzania.

    Cheetahs tend to stay outside protected areas, like the Serengeti, for a number of reasons, including avoidance of lions. This means that most wild cheetahs today live on human-dominated land — a fact that matters greatly to cheetah conservation.

    Closest cat-family relatives:

    The cheetah is so unusual that, up through much of the 20th century, it was considered to be a separate feline branch.

    However, a closer look, including DNA molecular studies, shows that cheetahs belong in the cat family and are very closely related to pumas and jaguarundis, though precise relationships among these three cats are still under debate.

    Famous cheetahs:

    Cheetahs are popular in marketing and animation, of course. Real-life cheetahs that have made the silver screen or the news include:

    How cheetahs hunt and eat:

    These cats certainly burn off calories while chasing prey, but in good times they only have to hunt every 2 to 5 days. Mothers with young cubs are the exception — they must go through the grueling chase every day. (Cat Specialist Group)

    Cheetahs usually hunt during the daytime hours, perhaps to avoid nocturnal predators like the lion. Also, they use their vision rather than scent to locate prey.

    However, cheetahs have been known to hunt at any hour of the day and night, especially when there is bright moonlight.

    Unlike lions or tigers, cheetahs aren’t built to tackle large animals (though a coalition occasionally may go after a wildebeest or zebra).

    Since cheetahs are close to exhaustion after a chase and don’t want to fight their prey after bringing it to the ground, they prefer medium-sized plant-eaters (120 pounds or less — generally gazelles or antelopes).

    Cheetahs are master stalkers when cover is available, but if the landscape is open, they’ll just walk up in full view and suddenly break into a run.

    Most of the time, it’s a mix of these two techniques (spoiler alert/warning: the calf in this video is doomed):



    Why does the cat invest so much energy into such a hunting style? And if it’s so terrific, why don’t other cats — pumas, for instance — do this?


    Cheetah hunt successfully about half the time, which is a very good percentage. Part of the reason for this is their visual technique.

    Rather than relying on scent or hearing, they spot the most vulnerable target before starting the chase. This certainly improves the outcome.

    Another factor is natural selection. Only cats with the right skills survive. The high energy cost of that chase means the cats who aren’t good at it don’t live long enough to pass along their genes.

    How they reproduce:

    Cheetahs have a year-round breeding season, and females are very promiscuous. As we’ve seen, each cub in a litter may have a different father.

    After a three-month gestation, little hedgehogs cheetahs are born, weighing less than 10 ounces at birth.

    Like most cats, they’re blind at first. Over the next two weeks, their eyes open and they can start exploring their world.

    After their first month, milk teeth start coming in and cheetah cubs are ready for some solids. Their “Mohawk” disappears at around age 3 months, though adolescents will still have a short mane for a while. (Some individuals keep it into adulthood.)

    The cubs are fully weaned by 5 months of age and usually have all of their permanent teeth by the time they’re 8 months old.

    At this point, they’ve survived the perilous early part of life and are now following Mom out on hunts for a while. But these youngsters aren’t ready for independence yet.

    It takes time to build those hunting skills!



    From what I’ve read, Mom doesn’t so much leave the kids as they move out at around age 16 to 18 months. Some leave earlier and others stick around a while longer.

    These sibling groups last around for about six months, generally until females have their first litter. After that, the males quite often stay together in a lifetime coalition.

    Interactions with people:

    Cheetahs are generally very shy and retiring. While you should never turn your back on any cat big enough to hurt you, there are no records of unprovoked cheetah attacks on people.

    Cheetahs can be tamed and have been since antiquity, though opinions vary as to when this was first done. Wikipedia has a nice summary of cheetah interactions with us down through human history.

    Fossil relatives:

    The oldest fossils in the puma lineage are from cheetahs.

    These remains were found at Laetoli — an archaelogical site in Tanzania that some of us may know for its preserved hominid footprints.

    Cheetahs lived there, too, some 3.4 to 3.8 million years ago. From that point on, the cats have continued to maintained a presence in Africa, though they’ve never been abundant there. (Werdelin et al.)

    In addition, two cheetah-like cats — one on either side of the Atlantic Ocean — show up in the fossil record around 3 million years ago.

    The giant cheetah, Acinonyx pardinensis, ranged across western Europe; similar fossils have also been found in China and India.

    It was about as big as a small modern lion, but not as massive.



    Computers and a thorough understanding of modern cat anatomy make it possible to picture what these ancient animals might have looked like.


    In many respects, the Eurasian cheetah was very similar to our modern speedster. Turner and Anton even suggest that it might be the same species!

    However, Werdelin et al. report that A. pardinensis went extinct in the early Middle Pleistocene.

    In North America, there were two species of cheetah-like cat. They lived at different times, and both have been given the genus name Miracinonyx.

    The oldest — M. inexpectatus — wasn’t quite as large as the Eurasian cheetah, but it was bigger than today’s puma and cheetah. (Turner and Anton)

    Miracinonyx 1.0 had both puma- and cheetah-like physical characteristics. Van Valkenburgh et al. suggest that it could have been the ancestor of both pumas and the much more cheetah-like Miracinonyx 2.0, a/k/a M. trumani.

    Pronghorn antelope — North America’s fastest land mammal today — easily outrun any of their modern predators. Experts suspect they evolved this swiftness back in the days when Miracinonyx 2.0 hunted them. (Image: Mark Gunn, CC BY 2.0)

    M. trumani is the one you may have heard called “the American cheetah.” Its fossils first show up in North America several hundred thousand years after inexpectatus had disappeared.

    Quotes are necessary around that title, though, since scientists are still debating this swift cat’s actual connection, if any, to modern cheetahs (see Barnett et al., Faurby et al., and O’Brien et al. in the source list for details).

    There are some unsolved mysteries about how cheetahs and other members of the puma lineage evolved.

    Unfortunately, no fossils have yet been uncovered in either the Old World or the New that record how these beautiful cats developed and spread out over the world.

    Let’s just be glad that cheetahs did evolve and can be enjoyed today.

    But will they be here forever?

    Red-listed?

    Cheetahs have been listed as Vulnerable since the 1980s.

    In addition, three populations are considered critically endangered (Durant et al.):

    • Iran
    • Northwest Africa
    • Populations in northern and western Africa

    Reportedly, there were about 100,000 cheetahs in 1900. Today, the best estimate is some 6,700 adults and adolescents:

    • 4,190 adults in southern Africa
    • 1,960 in eastern Africa
    • 440 in western, central, and northern Africa
    • 80 in Iran

    Cheetahs have always lived on the edge, but things clearly are more difficult for them today.

    Protecting them is very challenging. The Cat Specialist Group site, Durant (2010) in the source list, and the IUCN assessment are three good resources to check out in detail of what has caused the cheetah’s decline and also what is being done to ensure that this beautiful cat will still race across the wild plains for the foreseeable future.



    This is just one of the organizations working to protect cheetahs today. I chose it because of the dawn imagery, and also because Namibia has the highest number of cheetahs. Too, the hills in the background appear to be flood basalts — the Etendaka traps, I think — they’re also found in South America because the South Atlantic hadn’t opened up yet when lava flowed here in the early Cretaceous. But Family Felidae didn’t exist back then and wouldn’t for over 100 million years after that lava had hardened into those basalt columns and flat hilltops.



    Featured image: Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0.



    Sources:

    Barnett, R.; Barnes, I.; Phillips, M. J.; Martin, L. D.; and others. 2005. Evolution of the extinct sabretooths and the American cheetah-like cat. Current Biology, 15(15): R589-R590.

    Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Cheetah. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=107 Last accessed September 29, 2019.

    Culver, M.; Driscoll, C.; Eizirik, E.; and Spong, G. 2010. Genetic applications in wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 107-124. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Durant, S. M.; Dickman, A. J.; Maddox, T.; Waweru, M. N.; and others. 2010. Past, present, and future of cheetahs in Tanzania: their behavioural ecology and conservation, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 373-382. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Durant, S.; Mitchell, N.; Ipavec, A.; and Groom, R. 2015. Acinonyx jubatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T219A50649567 https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/219/50649567

    Eklund, R.; Peters, G.; and Duthie, E. D. 2010. An acoustic analysis of purring in the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and in the domestic cat (Felis catus), in Fonetik 2010, Lund University, 2–4 June 2010, Lund, Sweden (pp. 17-22). Mediatryck.

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