Except for rare mutations, cheetahs (whose
name is the Hindi for "spotted ones") have
tawny or grayish white coats covered with round
or oval black spots roughly an inch in diameter, located
everywhere except for the throat and abdomen.
The hair on the coarse coats is slightly longer
at the nape, and the tail has four to six black rings
(distinctive to each cheetah) and a white tuft at the
end. Cheetahs purr, yelp, and bark rather than
roar, owing to the lack of an ossified hyoid.
Cheetahs have long bodies and legs and a
small domed head with high set eyes, short ears,
and a black line (resembling a teardrop) that runs
from each eye down to the mouth. These lines aid
vision by reducing solar glare. The whiskers are
smaller than those of most cats, but cheetahs hunt
by sight alone. Mature cheetahs weigh between
110 and 130 pounds and reach an average height
of thirty-two inches at the shoulder, while their
bodies extend to roughly fifty inches in length.
Male cheetahs are slightly larger than females, but
both sexes have small teeth and large lungs and
nasal passages which produce a high volume of
oxygen. One set of leg muscles is designed for
walking, while another is for high-speed sprinting.
Cheetah paws are round and hard, and have
semiretractable claws that provide traction during
sprints and help the cheetah make quick turns.
By a combination of running and leaping, the
cheetah can accelerate from 0 to 45 miles per hour
in two seconds, and can reach recorded speeds of
up to 71 miles per hour-but for no more than 300
Habitat and Behavior
While about 75 percent of mammals in North America and Europe were eradicated during the Ice Age, the cheetah survived. However, the isolation of its small population created genetic problems because close relatives must mate. Cheetahs used to abound in India, but were wiped out there by the 1950's. They are not usually found in forest habitats but are mostly found in the drier parts of sub-Saharan Africa (especially Namibia and Ethiopia). Though they are frequently observed on open, grassy plains, they also appear in bush, scrub, and woodlands. They can adapt to arid environments, having the ability to travel an average of fifty miles between drinks of water. The blood or urine of prey satisfies their thirst, as does the flesh of tsama melons. Unlike lions, cheetahs hunt in early morning and late afternoon. They scan the countryside from a tree limb, the top of a termite mound, or even the roof of a safari car. Being carnivores, they feed primarily on gazelles, impalas, game birds, rabbits, and the young of warthogs, kudu, harte- beest, oryx, roan, and sable. Once they have located prey that has somehow strayed from its group, they approach stealthily to within fifty yards before sprinting. However, the sprints, though extremely swift, are brief, lasting anywhere froma few seconds to a minute. Most hunts are unsuccessful, but in successful ones, the cheetahs knock down their prey by the force of their charge or trip it, and strangle it by seizing the throat. Smaller prey are killed by a bite through the skull.Afemale with cubs hunts daily, whereas lone adults hunt every two to five days. Cheetahs eat quickly because they fear challenges from lions and hyenas, and they often haul their prey to high branches of trees. Male cheetahs form coalitions to help them in hunting prey and defending territory. Unrelated males are sometimes accepted into coalitions, but lone males can secure territory only if there are no coalitions nearby. Unlike males, female cheetahs leave their natal groups, though they do occupy the samehomerange as their mothers. Also unlike males, they are solitary, except when they have new litters. Males and females mix to mate, but only females rear cubs. Life spans in the wild average seven years.
Cheetahs reach sexual maturity in two years. Being polyestrous, females have an average reproductive cycle of twelve days, with fertility lasting fromone to three days. Gestation lasts about three months, and litters usually number three to five cubs, though some have as few as one and as many as eight. Newborn cubs are about a foot long and weigh less than half a pound. They have a mantle of hair along their back which helps camouflage them in the grass, but this mantle eventually disappears. Mothers move their cubs every few days to avoid predators. However, infant mortality rates can be as high as 90 percent, with lions being the biggest killers. Cubs are weaned at 3 to 6 months, but usually remain with their mothers between 1 and 1.5 years, while she teaches them how to hunt and kill prey.
Family: Felidae (cats)
Genus and species: Acinonyx jubatus
Geographical location: Sub-Saharan Africa and northern Iran
Habitat: Areas with tall grass and shrubs, or areas with elevated points
Gestational period: Three months
Life span: Up to twelve years in the wild, seventeen in captivity
Special anatomy: Body is approximately four feet long; long, thin legs; a tail about half as long as the total body; a deep, narrow chest; small round skull; rounded ears set far back; large nasal passages and lungs; large heart, adrenals, and arteries; spine gives spring for back legs
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