The sleek cheetah’s physical traits make it easily recognizable. It has a lean body, a small head, and long legs. A cheetah’s body is about four feet long, not including its tail, which can be up to three feet long. Cheetahs stand over three feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 75 to 125 pounds. Males are typically slightly larger than females. Dark lines called tear marks run from the inside corners of their eyes to the outside corners of their mouths. Their coats range from yellow to gold, with solid black spots, and usually a white chin and belly. A cheetah’s canine teeth are smaller than other great cats’. The cheetah is the only large cat whose claws are always visible as they are only partially retractable.
Many of the cheetah’s most distinctive physical traits are actually adaptations that help make it the world's fastest land animal. For instance, the cheetah’s long tail helps it maintain balance when a cheetah needs to make quick turns at top speed, which is 60 to 70 miles per hour. The cheetah’s relatively small canine teeth keep the roots of the upper canines from growing into the nasal passage, leaving room for large nasal passages for increased air intake. This air intake is critical to a cheetah’s recovery following a sprint. A cheetah’s partially retractable claws give the cat increased acceleration and better traction when running, like the cleats on a soccer player’s shoes.
Cheetahs are most abundant in eastern and southern Africa, with a large population in the farmlands south of the Etosha region of Namibia and in the Serengeti ecosystem of Kenya and Tanzania. Smaller populations of cheetahs still exist in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but burgeoning human populations have degraded their habitat. Some populations of cheetahs also persist in areas of the Middle East, including Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan.
Unlike any other cat species, cheetahs are diurnal—they hunt primarily during the day. Because cheetahs must sprint to catch their prey, they are best adapted for life on grassy plains or savannas, and this is where they are most often found. However, cheetahs also live in bush, scrub, and open woodland habitat.
Cheetahs’ primary diet consists of small antelope, including Thomson’s and other similarly sized gazelle and young wildebeest. They bring down their prey and kill them by suffocation after a spectacular high-speed chase. However, cheetahs are opportunistic and when antelope are scarce, they will hunt large antelope such as impala, warthogs, hares, calves, and even domestic livestock. Cheetahs are smaller than most predators in Africa, like lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild dogs. As often as half the time, these larger animals take away cheetahs’ kills.
Cheetahs are well adapted to living in arid environments and do not need to drink water to live. They seem to satisfy their moisture requirements from their prey’s blood and urine or by eating tsama melons.
Male cheetahs, usually brothers, live in lifelong groups called coalitions of two or three individuals. These coalitions occupy territories of about 15 square miles. A coalition defends its territory aggressively against other male cheetahs. Males born without a brother will often attempt the very risky venture of joining an existing coalition.
Female cheetahs are usually solitary animals, except when they have cubs. Their home ranges are, on average, 321.5 square miles, much larger than the males’ territories. They follow and hunt gazelle herds through their territory. Females do not defend their home ranges—they just seem to avoid other cheetahs. A female will come together with males only for breeding. Once breeding has taken place the female leaves the male territory and will not return.
Cheetahs reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age. After the solitary females rendezvous with a male to breed, she gives birth in about 89-93 days. Cheetah litters typically consist of two to six cubs. Cubs are born blind, helpless, and completely dependant on their mother. The large litter size may help compensate for the high rate of infant mortality cheetahs suffer. Most is due to predation from other large carnivores (such as lions, hyenas, and leopards), but there are also high instances of illness and stillbirths.
Cheetah cubs have long, silver manes that run from the backs of their heads and stop at the base of their tails. Their sides and bellies are very dark, almost black. This coloration may be a form of mimicry that helps protect them from predators. The honey badger, or ratel, a member of the weasel family that has few enemies due to its ferocious nature, is about the size of a cheetah cub, also has black fur along its sides and belly, and has a silver mane that runs from its head to the base of its tail.
Young cheetahs become independent between 1.5 to two years of age, when the mother leaves her cubs. The cubs (both males and female) stay together in a sibling group until they become sexually mature. At this point, the females will leave their brothers, and the males will search for a territory to take over from older males.
Competition with humans is the primary threat cheetahs face. Increased human settlement and agriculture limits physical space for cheetahs to live, breed, and hunt. This habitat encroachment also pushes away species cheetahs usually eat. As a result, cheetahs often turn to hunting livestock, which causes direct conflict between humans and cheetahs. Cheetahs usually lose. In North Africa and Iran, severe depletion of prey species has driven cheetahs very close to extinction.
Cheetahs are also susceptible to illness because thousands of years ago, there was a genetic bottleneck in the population. The bottleneck led to inbreeding, so all cheetahs today are as genetically similar to each other as human identical twins. All cheetahs have the same vulnerability and immunity to illnesses. In other species with more genetic variation, some individuals are more susceptible to illnesses, while some will be more resistant, and some will probably be immune. This differentiation comes in handy when a pandemic strikes because it allows a population the maximum chance to survive. The cheetahs’ lack of genetic variation, then, makes them a big bull’s-eye for illnesses.
Thousands of years of inbreeding also had a negative effect on cheetah gametes. On average, male cheetahs have 70% malformed sperm. This number is incredibly high. When a human male has 20% malformed sperm, doctors consider him infertile. The high percentage of malformed sperm in cheetahs means many breeding attempts do not result in pregnancy.
Cheetahs as we know them today, Acinonyx jubatus, probably originated in Africa during the Miocene epoch 2.6 million to 7.5 million years ago. Shortly afterward, they migrated into Asia. However, around the same time that Acinonyx jubatus, our modern cheetahs, emerged in Africa, another cheetah species, Acinonyx pardinensis, evolved and existed in Asia and Europe. A. pardinensis was a true cheetah, but was much larger than A. jubatus—weighing as much as 200 pounds. More recently, about 1.9 to 3.8 million years ago, a third cheetah species, Acinonyx intermedius (also larger than A. jubatus, but slightly smaller than A. pardinensis)evolved in China.
Three species of cheetah-like cats also used to roam North America. Although these North American cats all looked a lot like true cheetahs, they were different enough to be considered a distinct genus. Miracinonyx inexpectatus evolved 1 to 1.5 million years ago. This cat was probably a close relative of both the modern cougar and the modern cheetah. Based on M. inexpectatus’s skeleton,body proportions, and fully retractable claws, scientists think it was probably faster than the cougar but stronger and better equipped for climbing than true cheetahs. More recently, about 100,000 years ago, two more species of cheetah-like cats evolved in North America—Miracinonyx studeri and Miracinonyx trumani. Both had long bodies, short faces, enlarged nasal passages, and claws that only retracted partially. These cats could probably run as fast as modern cheetahs. In fact, scientists think that these two predators are the reason that the pronghorn antelope, which exists only in the southwestern United States today, evolved to run as fast as it does.
The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, and that drastic global environmental change seems to have devastated the Acinonyx and Miracinonyx species alike. All of the cheetah and cheetah-like species went extinct except for A. jubatus, the only cheetah species still alive today. Although A. jubatus avoided extinction, it appears that the species only squeaked by with a very few survivors.
In the 1980s, scientists started trying to figure out why zoos were having trouble breeding cheetahs. They found that cheetahs are so genetically similar to each other that there is zero percent genetic variation between individuals. The species must have gone through a genetic bottleneck, a severe population reduction, at some point in its history. The most accepted hypothesis is that their population crashed when the ice age ended. Somehow a very few cheetahs survived, maybe only one pregnant female but no more than ten. As a result, the species became inbred in order to survive.
Humans were keeping cheetahs in captivity at least as early as 3000 BC. Wealthy Sumerians in Babylon kept them as hunting animals. The Mongol emperor, Akbar the Great had 1,000 cheetahs for hunting in 1300 AD, all of which were taken from the wild as adults. During the first 4,000 years of humans keeping cheetahs, there was only one recorded birth: In the 17th century, Akbar, a Moghul emperor in India, had cheetahs that unexpectedly mated and produced young.
The earliest record of a zoo exhibiting cheetahs is 1829 at the Zoological Society of London. However, that cheetah died before it was one year old. The first North American zoo to exhibit cheetahs was the Central Park Zoo, New York, in 1871. By 1954, 139 cheetahs were on exhibit in 47 facilities across Europe and North America, but most did not live more than one year and there were no captive births. The first captive birth did not take place until 1956 at the Philadelphia Zoo. Since then breeding in zoos has increased significantly and the captive population is almost completely self-sustaining. Scientists and keepers study cheetah behavior, nutrition, veterinary medicine, and assisted reproduction that will help to ensure the survival of this species.