It is not only the fastest cat, but also the fastest land animal in the world. It can run at speeds up to 120 km/h (75 mph). The speed of 72 km/h is a trot, the cat achieves it in two and a half seconds. During the run the cheetah tears all paws from the ground simultaneously twice, making long jumps, and its non-retractable claws act like spikes in the shoes of professional runners. When running, the cheetah spends more time in the air than on the ground.
The cheetahs are fawn and have dark dots all over their bodies and characteristic black lines running from the inner corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth. Surprisingly, the cheetah’s skin is entirely white. The placement of the dots is different for each cat, so after careful analysis, the individual can be identified. The tail of each cheetah ends with a characteristic white brush.
The interesting thing about these cats is that instead of melanistic or albinistic variations, king cheetahs exist. They are born among classic cats but the appearance is significantly different, thanks to the genetic mutation. The king cheetah has more visible, larger spots which merge on the back into long stripes along the spine. On the side of the body they create irregular marks and interesting swirls.
The proportions of the cheetah’s body are unique, perfectly adapted to the sprint. Cheetahs have a very slender body, long tail and paws. Their spine is extremely flexible, allowing the cat to fold up and unfold while running and to tear all paws off the ground in two phases. A tail that is half the length of a body acts like a rudder on sharp turns. The head is held surprisingly still, which allows the cat to focus on the victim. In addition, the cheetah has very flexible shoulders and pelvis that allow it to be concertina shaped while running.
The cheetah has enlarged lungs, heart and nasal crevices so that it can efficiently drop the temperature after a mad run after the victim. It’s able to maintain the highest speed on the distance up to 500 meters. After such a distance, there is a risk of the body overheating, so cheetahs rarely decide to go so far. Cheetahs start chasing the victim mostly when it is about 100 meters (328 feet) away, sometimes further.
Cheetahs live in Africa and Asia on savannas, semi-deserts and steppes. They are active mainly during the day, probably because they do not see very well at night. The largest part of the population lives in unprotected areas because they cope better when there are no lions around. As a result, they are more exposed to contact with people.
The young are born with a characteristic pale mane that starts on the head and runs along the spine. Those cats have quite well-developed social ties. Kittens, after being separated from their mother at the age of about two, remain in the family group for about half a year. After this time, females begin to lead a lonely life, and males form coalitions. Male groups are usually connected by blood ties, but not necessarily. Groups of males occupy territory, unlike females that do not attach themselves to the ground. Struggles between cheetahs are very rare, they sparsely fight over territory.
Some males live as nomads and are not able to maintain control over the territory but each of them marks their presence on distinctive landscape elements. Single males do not spend much time in one place, but they are more stressed because they have to avoid territorial males.
In Africa, they mainly hunt gazelles, whose defensive technique against cheetahs is a constant change in direction of the run. Gazelles are aware that they are slower than cheetahs. They also know that by twisting, the cheetah must lose speed and this is their only chance. These cats, however, are very manoeuvrable, and the long tail helps them maintain their balance. They also hunt for smaller rabbits or birds, but very rarely. A group of males can hunt even much larger wildebeest or zebra. In Asia, they hunt wild sheep, ibexes and hares. They knock the victim with front paws and suffocate it by biting the neck.
Cheetahs cannot climb trees and rarely return to an abandoned meal. After running, they need to rest for about half an hour, panting like dogs to lose heat from the body. Having cooled down, the cheetah eats the victim as quickly as possible because even vultures can overcome this cat with the right numbers. Prey won with difficulty is also taken by much stronger lions, hyenas and leopards.
Cheetahs can make a lot of different sounds like chirping, snarling and barking.
Cheetahs have adapted well to living in a very dry climate because they do not need significant amounts of drinking water. Most of the liquids are taken from their victims. They can even eat a watermelon growing on the desert to make up for the lack of water. Eating fruits by cats is a very unique feature, but the master is flat-headed cat because fruits constitute up to 50% of its diet.
Cheetahs suffer from very low genetic variation due to mass extinction in the ice age. Cheetahs were in such small amount around the world that the gene pool of these amazing runners was barely enough to survive. Even today’s cheetahs feel the effects because they are very vulnerable to genetic diseases and high mortality of their offspring. About 70% of kittens die in the first months of life.
Upbringing even healthy kittens is very difficult. The mother caring for the young must hunt every day, and it is very exhausting. Kittens are also threatened primarily by lions, hyenas and leopards, treating them as future competitors.
Cheetahs are killed by natives because these cats kill farm animals. Some poachers also hunt for fur, and some capture young kitties to sell them as pets because cheetahs are easy to domesticate.
In case of a conflict with lions, hyenas or leopards, cheetahs can only try to escape. Larger predators, therefore, affect the amount of prey and space available to cheetahs
The cheetah population is decreasing and is vulnerable to extinction.
Author: Małgorzata Banaszkiewicz
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