One of A Kind - The Cheetah
A Monotypic Species
Like the moose, numbat and okapi, the cheetah is a monotypic species. It is the only living representative of the genus Acinonyx. Its main claim to fame is its speed. It has the fastest land speed of any living animal reaching between 112 and 120 kilometres per hour (70 to 75 mph). However it can only sustain these speeds for perhaps 500 metres (1,600 feet). Acceleration from zero to over 100 km/h (62mph) takes just three seconds.
The word 'cheetah' is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning 'variegated'.
Like the lion, tiger and leopard, it belongs to the Felidae family but is the only felid with non-retractable claws. Its pads are not designed for gripping and it is unable to climb trees although it manages to scale lower branches. The cheetah is not regarded as a true 'big cat'. Big cats can roar but can only purr while exhaling whereas the cheetah cannot roar but can purr as it inhales. The cheetah's nearest relatives are the cougar and the jaguarondi.
Its full taxonomic name is Acinonyx jubatus. Acinonyx is Greek and has the literal meaning of 'no move claw' and 'jubatus' is Latin for 'maned'. The cubs are born with manes down the back of the neck. Around six subspecies are formally recognised with others still being debated.
The 'king cheetah' was once regarded as a subspecies and has larger, blotchy spots which merge. However this pattern occurs because of a single recessive gene and doesn't constitute a subspecies. Other colour variations, mainly in captive animals kept for hunting, have included melanism, albinism, speckles and grey colouration. Historically and in its former range, the cheetah has been used to hunt antelopes by the aristocrats.
While the leopard and the cheetah may both have spots, the cheetah has a very different 'frame' from the leopard. The leopard has shorter legs and a much more muscular body. The spots of the leopard are rosettes rather than solid spots and the leopard does not have the dark 'tear marks' on the face that the cheetah does.
The cheetah is native to most of Africa and to parts of the Middle East.
The cheetah needs vast expanses of land with plenty of prey. It prefers open semi-desert, prairie and thick brush although it is also found in savannahs, grasslands, mountainous areas and thickly vegetated regions.
The cheetah has short, coarse fur. Round black spots on a tan background provide good camouflage. The spots on the tail merge at the tip to create four to six dark rings. There is a bushy, white tuft on the end of the tail (but not on all cheetahs) and the undersurfaces are white.
The head is small with black 'tear marks' running from the corners of the eyes down the sides of the nose to the mouth. Adults weigh between 35 and 72 kg and the total head and body length is 110 to 150 cm. The tail adds another 60 to 84 cm. They stand between 66 and 94 cm tall at the shoulder. Males may be somewhat larger than females but there is very little difference.
The semi-retractable claws give extra grip during high speed chases. The skeletal formation of the paws is the same as other cats with the exception of the sheath of fur seen in other big cat species.
Its great speed is aided by large nostrils which increase its oxygen intake. The heart and lungs are larger than comparable animals and the tail is used as a rudder for steering. The cheetah is able to execute sharp turns at lightning speed.
Male cheetahs may form 'coalitions' with one or two other males. They are territorial and will choose areas where the home ranges of several females overlap. Territories are marked by the males urinating on trees, logs or white-ant mounds. Males will fight to keep their territories intact.
Cheetahs have a number of vocalisation including chirping (a high-pitched barking), churring or stuttering (used during social connections), growling accompanied by hissing and spitting, yowling and purring.
The cheetah is diurnal. Prey is caught by tripping the animal then suffocating it by biting under the throat. Selected prey are not always weak or old but may have wandered some distance from their group. A kill is eaten as quickly as possible before stronger predators appear and steal the kill. The cheetah rarely risks fighting as it is not as strong as many species. It will surrender a kill rather than fight to retain its meal as it relies on its speed for success in hunting and cannot risk being injured.
Cheetahs are carnivores and most consume smaller mammals or the young of larger mammals. Hares and guineafowl are also eaten. Hunting is done either early in the morning or towards dusk. Hunting is by sight with prey being stalked then chased. If the cheetah cannot catch its prey within a minute, it will give up. Sprinting increases the body temperature to quite dangerous levels and a cheetah will rest after killing its prey.
Sexual maturity is reached at around 20 to 24 months (females) and twelve months (males). Males do not usually mate until three years old. Females often have cubs by many different males. Breeding occurs all year round.
Up to nine cubs may be born but the average is 3 to 5. Gestation is 90 to 98 days. The cheetah is born with its spots and also with a downy fur or mantle on the backs of their necks and extending down to the middle of the back.
The mantle is shed as the cheetah ages. Between 13 and 20 months of age the cubs leave their mothers. In the wild the life span is about twelve years but this increases to around twenty years in captivity.
Females live alone and raise their cubs without help. Once the cubs leave the mother they may form sibling groups for another six months. Young males are more social and may remain together for long periods but females become solitary.
Mortality rates in cubs may reach 90% from encounters with lions, hyenas, leopards and eagles.
Once adult, a healthy cheetah has few enemies.
The cheetah is listed as 'vulnerable'. It does not adapt easily to new environments and is not the easiest of animals to breed in captivity. It has a very low sperm count, low motility and deformed flagella. It is believed that inbreeding has caused these problems. Skin grafts between unrelated cheetahs are never rejected proving unusually low genetic variability.
Although once hounded and hunted for its fur, loss of habitat and scarcity of prey are now the cheetah's main problems.