Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Cheetah Challenges

Sidebar: The Tail Tells the Tale

All cheetahs look pretty much alike. “But if you look closely, every cat has some unique pattern on its body,” says Juan Rodriguez, an animal keeper who has documented markings on the Zoo’s cheetahs. On one animal, for example, the muzzle is tan; on another, it’s whiter. One male has two parallel bars amid the spots on his right side. His brother has a black horizontal line on his left side.

cheetah cubs

These cubs were born in April 2005. This picture was taken a few months later. (Jessie Cohen/NZP)

Some researchers in the wild also use facial markings to identify cats. The black tear marks on the face, unique to cheetahs, can vary in width under the eye and at the lip. Likewise, dots above and at the corners of the eyes can differ among cheetahs.

But the most reliable of all distinguishing characteristics, Rodriguez says, are the tail bands, which are as individual as fingerprints. Not only do they differ from cat to cat, they also are different on each side of the tail in the same cat.

Tail bands come in different varieties. Some completely circle the tail. Others go halfway or three-quarters of the way around. Some go just a quarter of the way, looking almost like dots. Scan the five to eight inches nearest to the tip of the tail to find subtle differences that can distinguish individual cats.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 39(1) 2010. Copyright 2010 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.