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Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

The cheetah's coat is short, except for the ruff of longer hair framing face and short spinal crest. It is tan, or buff colored, with solid black spots measuring from .78 to 1.85 inches across. There are over 3000 spots on an adult cheetah's coat, but there are no spots on its white belly. The tail has spots which merge to form four to six dark rings at the end, and it usually ends in a bushy white tuft. The extremely rare king cheetah (Acinonyx rex) has spots that run together to form several (usually three) black stripes down its back from the crest of its neck to the top of the tail. They also sport dark patch shaped markings, irregular in size and shape along their sides and flanks.

Distribution and Description

The cheetah is found in grassy plains and savannas. (a meadow land, or large, grassy, treeless, area). It also lives in the tropical areas of Africa, and the grassy lands of Asia, but it is endangered and nearly extinct in Asia. It is the smallest of the big cats. Male cheetahs are only slightly bigger than females. They can reach over 4 ft. in length with tail length of around 28 inches. Males weigh 80-140 lbs. Females are slightly smaller, weighing between 90 and 110 pounds.

Built for Speed

Most people know that cheetahs are the fastest land animal in the world, running at speeds up to 71 miles per hour (114 kph). Cheetahs are aerodynamically built for speed, and here are the reasons why:

  • A small head, flat face, reduced muzzle length allowing the large eyes to be positioned for maximum binocular vision.
  • Eyes with elongated retinal foveas for a wide-angle view of its surroundings.
  • Dark tear marks beneath each eye to minimize the sun's glare, similar to the charcoal football and baseball players put under their eyes.
  • A long, narrow, fluid, greyhound-like body that is streamlined over light bones.
  • Small collarbones and vertical shoulder blades to help lengthen its stride.
  • A spine that works like a spring for its powerful back legs. This gives the cheetah added reach for each step.
  • Large nostrils, nasal passeges and lungs that allow them to take in a great deal of oxygen quickly.
  • A large liver, heart and adrenals for fast physical response.
  • Long, slender feet and legs, and specialized muscles, which act simultaneously for high acceleration, allowing greater swing to the limbs.
  • Paws that are less rounded than the other cats, and hard pads, similar to tire treads, to help them in fast, sharp turns.
  • Fairly blunt, semi-retractable claws used like cleats for added traction when running and making quick turns.
  • A long and muscular tail that acts as a stabilizer or rudder for balance to counteract its body weight, preventing it from rolling over and spinning out in quick, fast turns during a high-speed chase.

The cheetah can accelerate from 0 to 40 mph in three strides and to its full speed of 70 mph in seconds. As the cheetah runs, only one foot at a time touches the ground. There are two points, in its 20 to 25 foot (7-8 metres) stride when no feet touch the ground, as they are fully extended and then totally doubled up. Nearing full speed, the cheetah is running at about 3 strides per second. However, they can only keep their top speed for about 200 to 300 yards, so their stalk is every bit as important as the chase. Successful stalking will get the cheetah close enough to quickly catch its prey.

There is a high cost for the cheetah's speed besides lack of endurance. They get tired and require up to a half hour of rest before being able to eat their kill. Their heart rate raises to 200-250 beats per minute, which is much higher than their average resting rates of 120-170 beats per minute. The cheetah's breathing rate is also greatly accelerated after a chase to 150-200 breaths per minute. Its resting rates generally vary from 20-30 per minute depending on whether it's in direct sunlight or in the shade. Their body temperatures also rise significantly to about 105 degrees farenheight (41 degrees celcius) during a chase. Because of these factors, if the cheetah can't catch its prey within about 300 yards, it will abandon the chase.

Hunting and Feeding

Cheetahs tend to hunt small animals because their small head and jaws are not powerful enough to tackle large animals. To bring down its prey, a cheetah will trip the prey with its sharp dewclaw, hooking the back or flank of the prey and pulling backwards. This throws the prey off balance, and will alow the cheetah to secure its grip on the victim's windpipe and suffocate its prey. The cheetah uses its legs and chest to hold down the struggling animal until it suffocates. Cheetah's canine teeth are smaller than most predators, but their vise-like jaws grip keep prey from getting away.

Cheetahs are about 50% successful in their hunts. Their diet consistes of wide range of prey from steenbok, rabbits, wildebeest calves, duikers, kudu, and impala to springbok, hartebeest, oryx, roan, sable, birds and warthog. Their favoriate prey is the Thompson's Gazelle. Once they're rested, they eat their kill quickly because they can't defend their food from other predators that come along to steal it. Cheetahs can lose up to 10% of their food to stronger lions and hyenas, and lions will frequently kill cheetahs. Cheetahs require fresh meat, so they don't come back to a kill after eating and they don't eat carrion (dead animals). Cheetahs also leave skin, bones and entrails. A cheetah generally eats about 6-8 pounds of food per day, and may go as long as 4 to 10 days without water.

Dwindling Populations

Lions and hyenas kill cheetahs in Africa. Tigers and leopards are threats to them in Asia. Humans are a threat to them due to hunting, habitat destruction and keeping the gentle cheetah as pets. Another serious threat is that cheetahs ar emore genetically identical to each other than any other felid species. The lack of genetic variation is probably due to past inbreeding for possibly as long as 10 thousand years. The consequences of such genetic uniformity have led to reproductive abnormalities, high infant mortality, and greater susceptibility to disease, causing the species to be less adaptable and more vulnerable to ecological and environmental changes.

Cheetahs live for about 7 years in the wild and for about 15 years in captivity.

Vocal Communication

The cheetah is much less vocal than other cats. Vocal communication generally takes place in more close contact with siblings, in maternal calling or in defense. Cheetahs chirp, yelp, growl, snarl, bleat and purr. Otherwise, verbal communication is pretty much limited to growling, hissing and spitting to try to keep a predator from stealing its kill. They'll try mock charging, as well, to discourage thieves. However, they will give in to a much stronger lion or hyena, and leave the kill.