Temporal range: late Pliocene to Recent
|The range of the cheetah|
A cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a large cat which lives in Africa. They are built for speed, with a whip-like spine, long legs, and a long tail that acts as a rudder for sudden turns. Cheetahs are the world's fastest land animal and can chase its prey for 270 meters (almost a sixth of a mile) at the speed of 114 kilometers (almost 71 miles per hour) per hour. Both the male and the female of the species are referred to as 'cheetahs' unlike in the case of other animals. Cheetahs can generally live up to 7 years.
Cheetahs are rather dog-like, medium-sized spotted cats with long legs and slender, but muscular, bodies. They have a white belly, and a dark stripe that looks like a tear on both sides of their faces, cheetahs have round dark spots on their fur. Adult cheetahs weigh from 90 to 140 pounds (40-65 kg), and are around 4 to 5 feet (112-135 cm) in length.
Their long tail provides them with balance. They have a big chest, a narrow waist, and powerful muscles in their hind legs. They have small heads and muzzles; large nostrils for increased oxygen intake; and small, round ears. All of this makes the cheetah very sleek and aerodynamic when it runs. Cheetahs do not roar, but they make a number of sounds, many of which resemble bird chirps which can be heard at a distance of a mile away. Apart from pumas, cheetahs are the only big cats that purr.
Cheetahs have a high concentration of nerve cells, arranged in a band in the centre of the eyes. This arrangement, called a "visual streak", significantly enhances the sharpness of the vision.
Cheetahs are diurnal (active mainly during the day), whereas leopards, tigers, and lions are nocturnal (active mainly at night); diurnality allows better observation and monitoring of the animal. Hunting is the major activity throughout the day; peaks are observed during dawn and dusk indicating crepuscular tendencies. Groups rest in grassy clearings after dusk, though males and juveniles often roam around at night. The cheetah is an alert animal; individuals often inspect their vicinity at observation points such as elevations. Even while resting, they take turns at keeping a lookout.
Cheetahs engage in several displays during fights, hunting, or self-defence. Prior to a sprint, the cheetah will hold its head down, with aggression on its face, and approach the target in a stiff gait. The aggressive expression is maintained during the run. To defend itself or its prey, a cheetah will hold its body low to the ground, and produce a snarl with its mouth wide open, the eyes staring threateningly ahead and the ears folded backward. This may be accompanied by moans, hisses, and growls. In more severe cases, the ground is hit with the paws.
Today, most cheetahs are found in sub-Saharan Africa, though a few are still seen in Asia in Iran. In the past, they used to be found throughout northern India and Iran. They prefer to live in semi-deserts, savannas, prairies, and thick brush. As they rely upon speed to hunt, they avoid dense forests. Conservation efforts are required in order to avoid the cheetah becoming an entry on the endangered species list.
In India, the forests in which many cheetahs live are not secured and they can leave the forests and travel into cities or villages. In the last 2-3 years, cheetahs have been found in these urban areas.
They are well-adapted to living in arid environments. In the Kalahari desert, they have been estimated to travel an average of 82 km between drinks of water.
Cheetahs are active during the day, and hunt in the early morning or late evening. Cheetahs mostly eat mammals like gazelles, impala, gnu calves, and hares. Male cheetahs, which are larger and heavier than females, can go after larger prey.
Cheetahs stalk their prey until they are within about thirty meters, and then give chase. Cheetahs catch their prey by tripping it during the chase; the cheetah can use its strong dewclaw to knock the prey off its balance. The chase is usually over in less than a minute, and if the cheetah doesn't catch its prey quickly, it will often give up rather than waste energy. This is because cheetahs use a lot of energy when chasing prey at such high speed. They are very fast runners due to the build of their legs and about half of the chases are successful. After running at full speed, a cheetah must rest at least 15 minutes before running again.
The prey is then taken to a shaded place; the cheetah, highly exhausted after the chase, rests beside the kill and pants heavily for nearly five to 55 minutes. Groups of cheetah devour the kill peacefully, though minor growling may be observed. Cheetahs not involved in hunting will immediately start eating. Cheetahs can consume large quantities of food.
Cheetahs must eat their catch quickly or risk losing their food to other stronger predators like lions or hyenas. They will not usually fight with a larger animal over food as risking an injury would mean certain starvation. Cheetahs do not usually eat the skin or bones of their prey.
Because of its prowess at hunting, the cheetah was tamed and used to kill game at hunts in the past.
Pregnant females give birth to about 3 to 5 cubs after three months pregnancy. It takes two years of full-time supervision by the mother before the cubs are ready to live independent lives. They need to learn how to catch prey, and that takes time. The young are vulnerable to larger predators: lions especially try to kill cheetahs.
The lifespan of wild cheetahs is 14 to 15 years for females, males generally live as long as 10 years.
Status and threats
The cheetah has been classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, it is threatened by habitat loss through agricultural and industrial expansion; moreover, the species apparently requires a large area to live in as indicated by its low population densities. It appears to be less capable of coexisting with humans than the leopard. Human interference disturbs hunting and feeding of cheetah. With 76% of its range consisting of unprotected land, the cheetah is often targeted by farmers and pastoralists who attempt to protect their livestock. However, cheetah is not known to prey on livestock.
Game hunters may also try to harm cheetahs as they deprive them of valuable game. Roadkill is another threat, especially in areas where roads have been constructed near natural habitat or protected areas.
In 2016, it was estimated that there are just 7,100 cheetahs remaining in the wild, and simulation modelling suggested that they are at risk of extinction.
Images for kids
Tanzanian cheetah in pursuit of a Thomson's gazelle
Cheetahs use their carnassial teeth to tear the flesh
Cheetahs inhabit savannahs
A hieroglyph from Deir el-Bahari depicting leashed cheetahs ("panthers")
Giuliano de' Medici depicted with a cheetah behind him on horseback. Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli
Cheetah Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.