The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. With acceleration that would leave most automobiles in the dust, a cheetah can go from 0 to 60 miles (96 kilometers) an hour in only three seconds. These big cats are quite nimble at high speed and can make quick and sudden turns in pursuit of prey.
Before unleashing their speed, cheetahs use exceptionally keen eyesight to scan their grassland environment for signs of prey—especially antelope and hares. This big cat is a daylight hunter that benefits from stealthy movement and a distinctive spotted coat that allows it to blend easily into high, dry grasses.
When the moment is right a cheetah will sprint after its quarry and attempt to knock it down. Such chases cost the hunter a tremendous amount of energy and are usually over in less than a minute. If successful, the cheetah will often drag its kill to a shady hiding place to protect it from opportunistic animals that sometimes steal a kill before the cheetah can eat. Cheetahs need only drink once every three to four days.
Female cheetahs typically have a litter of three cubs and live with them for one and a half to two years. Young cubs spend their first year learning from their mother and practicing hunting techniques with playful games. Male cheetahs live alone or in small groups, often with their littermates.
Most wild cheetahs are found in eastern and southwestern Africa. Perhaps only 12,000 of these big cats remain, and those are under pressure as the wide-open grasslands they favor are disappearing at the hands of human settlers.
|Scientific Name:||Acinonyx jubatus|
|Size:||30 inches at the shoulder|
|Weight:||110 to 140 pounds|
|Lifespan:||10 to 20 years|
|Gestation:||90 to 95 days|
|Predators:||Eagles, humans, hyenas, lions|
The lion is said to be majestic, the leopard ferocious and shrewd. But elegant and graceful best describes the cheetah. The cheetah is smaller than the other two cats, but by far the fastest at speeds of 70 miles per hour it can run faster than all other animals.
Now restricted to sub-Saharan Africa, wild cheetahs once were found in most of Africa, the plains of southern Asia, the Middle East and India.
The cheetah is built for speed. It has long, slim, muscular legs, a small, rounded head set on a long neck, a flexible spine, a deep chest, nonretractable claws, special pads on its feet for traction and a long, tail for balance. Although fast, the cheetah cannot run at full speed for long distances (100 yards is about the limit) because it may overheat.
Cheetahs have distinctive black “tear stripes” that connect from the inside corner of each eye to the mouth that may serve as an antiglare device for daytime hunting.
Cheetahs are found in open and partially open savannas.
Cheetah mothers spend a long time teaching their young how to hunt small live antelopes are brought back to the cubs and released so they can chase and catch them. Unlike most other cats, the cheetah usually hunts during daylight, preferring early morning or early evening, but is also active on moonlit nights.
Cheetahs do not roar like lions, but they purr, hiss, whine and growl. They also make a variety of contact calls, the most common is a birdlike chirping sound.
Once a cheetah has made a kill, it eats quickly and keeps an eye out for scavengers lions, leopards, hyenas, vultures and jackals will occasionally take away their kills. Although cheetahs usually prey on the smaller antelopes such as Thomson’s gazelles and impalas, they can catch wildebeests and zebras if hunting together. They also hunt hares and other small mammals and birds.
Although known as an animal of the open plains that relies on speed to catch its prey, research has shown that the cheetah depends on cover to stalk prey. The cheetah gets as close to the prey as possible, then in a burst of speed tries to outrun its quarry. Once the cheetah closes in, it knocks the prey to the ground with its paw and suffocates the animal with a bite to the neck.
Caring for the Young
With a life span of 10 to 12 years, the cheetah is basically a solitary animal. At times a male will accompany a female for a short while after mating, but most often the female is alone or with her cubs. Two to four cubs are born in a secluded place. Their eyes do not open for a week or two, and they are helpless at first. When the mother is hunting, she leaves them hidden, but by 6 weeks of age they are able to follow her. They are suckled for 2 to 3 months but begin to eat meat as early as 3 weeks.
By 4 months the cheetah cub is a tawny yellow and almost completely spotted; the tail has bands of black and by adulthood a white tip. The grayish mantle disappears more slowly; the last traces are still visible when the cubs are adult-sized at 15 months.
A shy creature that roams widely, the cheetah is not seen as easily as some other cats. Never numerous, cheetahs have become extinct in many areas, principally due to shrinking habitat, loss of species to prey upon, disease and a high rate of cub mortality. In some areas 50 to 75 percent of all cheetah cubs die before 3 months.
Did you know?
* The name cheetah comes from an Indian word meaning “spotted one.”
* The young cub has a long gray-blue coat and a black underbelly that rapidly lightens and becomes spotted.
* Early peoples trained cheetahs for hunting, and many civilizations depicted them in their art and in written records.
* Cheetahs were so popular that Akbar the Great of India was said to have kept a stable of about 1,000.