Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Cheetah facts

© Michael J Vickers

The cheetah is a member of the cat family, which has about 38 different species, ranging in size from the domestic cat to the tiger.  They are split into ‘big’ and ‘small’ cats and in general, big cats can roar, while small cats can purr continuously. 

The sleek and powerful big cats are skilled hunters, found in every continent in the world, except Australia and Antarctica.  Cheetahs are considered by some to be the smallest of the big cats, but unlike ‘true’ big cats, they can purr but cannot roar.

How are cheetahs classified?

Living things can be organised into different groups.  Species that are alike are grouped together.  This is called classification.

Class:   Mammals
Order:  Carnivores
Family:   Felids
Species:   Acinonyx jubatus

Cats are special

Intelligent and agile, cats are ideally designed to hunt, with sharp teeth and claws, strong jaws, powerful bodies, excellent eyesight, acute hearing and a good sense of smell.  Their fur coats are camouflaged to blend into their backgrounds. 

Distribution

Cheetahs used to be found throughout Africa and Asia but are now found only in Iran and sub-Saharan Africa.  Namibia has the largest population with an estimated 3,000 animals. 

Habitat

Traditionally associated with the African savannah, the cheetah requires vast expanses of land with lots of prey.  In Namibia they are found in a wide range of habitats including grasslands, dense vegetation and mountainous terrain.

Diet

All cats are carnivores, or meat-eaters, at the top of their ‘food chains’.  Most hunt mainly at night but the cheetah avoids competition by hunting during the day, relying on vision and speed rather than scent.  The hunt is usually over quickly, in less than a minute, or the cheetah will give up.  50% of chases result in failure.  Prey includes gazelles, springbok and impala, as well as young wildebeests and zebra, plus guineafowl and hares. 

Adaptations

Over 2m long from head to tail tip and weighing up to 65kg, cheetahs are slender and long-legged, with a relatively small head.  Males are slightly larger but it is difficult to tell them apart from females.  They are covered in small, round black spots, with black ‘tear marks’ running from eyes to mouth which help keep sunlight out of its eyes.  Unlike most cats, the cheetah’s claws are always visible, giving extra grip in high-speed pursuits. 

The cheetah is designed to run at top speeds (up to 75mph) in short bursts up to 450m, accelerating from 0 to 68mph in three seconds, faster than most sports cars,  Their spine is particularly flexible, with an enlarged heart, wide nostrils and increased lung capacity allowing for better oxygen intake, plus thin muscular body, covering 8m in a stride.

Behaviour

The cheetah might not roar but its wide range of vocalisations include a high-pitch ‘chirping’, used when trying to locate another cheetah especially cubs.  ‘Churring’ is used as a greeting or appeasement, ‘growling’ when a cheetah is annoyed or under threat, ‘yowling’ is an escalated form of growling while ‘purring’ occurs when an animal is content, especially between a mother and cubs. 

Society

Females are solitary and live alone in very large home ranges, except when they are raising cubs.  But males are very sociable and will group together in ‘coalitions’, usually with their brothers, or two or three lone males.  Males are very territorial, choosing a point at which several female ranges overlap and defending this area.  All the males in the coalition mark their territory with urine and defend it against intruders. 

Reproduction

Females mature in two years, males in one, although they do not mate until at least three years of age.  Mating occurs throughout the year and females can give birth to up to nine 11oz cubs after three months, although the average litter size is about four.  Cubs rely on their mother’s milk and stay with their mother until about 20 months old.  During this time they learn how to hunt and avoid other predators.  Once their mother has left a sibling group will stay together for another six months, after which females leave and young males remain together for life.

© Michael J Vickers
Born Free Foundation
Broadlands Business Campus, Langhurstwood Road
, Horsham, RH12 4QP, UK - Charity Reg. No. 1070906


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