Cheetahs have slender, long-legged bodies with blunt, semi-retractable claws. Their heads are small with high-set eyes. A black tear mark runs from the inner corner of each eye down to the mouth. A cheetah's teeth are small when compared with other big cats, which accommodates their larger nasal passages that enable quick air intake.
Adults have yellow or tan short, coarse fur with solid black round or oval spots measuring 0.75 to 1.5 inches (1.9 to 3.8 centimeters) in diameter. The spots cover nearly the entire body; only the white throat and belly are unmarked. The tail ends with four to six black rings and a bushy white or black tuft.
Cheetahs' spots may serve as camouflage for both hunting and hiding. Their spots may offset the shadows in the gray-hued grasses they often inhabit, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings. Camouflage is essential not only for stalking prey, but also for protecting cheetah cubs from predators. A cheetah cub's smoky gray mantle may serve as added camouflage among dead grasses. Much like a human fingerprint, a cheetah's spots and the ring pattern of its tail are unique, enabling researchers in the field to identify individuals.
Cheetahs are aerodynamically built for speed and are the fastest land mammal. At top speed, they advance 23 feet (7 meters) in a single stride and complete four strides per second. That top speed averages between 60 and 70 miles per hour (96 and 112 kilometer per hour) and can be maintained for only about 300 yards (274 meters). Cheetahs can accelerate from zero to 45 miles per hour (zero to 72 kilometers per hour) in just 2.5 seconds. No other land mammal surpasses their short sprints.
Special paw pads and semi-retractable claws provide great traction. Large nostrils and lungs provide quick air intake that allows cheetahs to breathe more easily while running and suffocating their prey. A large liver, heart and adrenal gland facilitate a rapid physical response. A greyhound-like body is streamlined over light bones. Cheetahs have small collarbones and vertical shoulder blades, which are not attached to the collarbone, as well as hips that swivel on a flexible spine. These structural adaptations help lengthen their stride and provide superior acceleration. The cheetah's tail acts as a rudder for quick turning, counteracting its body weight.
Cheetahs' eyes have elongated retinal foveas (the small, rodless areas of the retina), giving them a sharp, wide-angle view of their surroundings. Their small, flat-faced heads allow their eyes to be positioned for maximum binocular vision. The dark tear marks beneath each eye may aid in hunting by minimizing the sun's glare. They may also provide an enhanced ability to intimidate. A cheetah's spine works as a spring for its powerful back legs, extending the cheetah's reach with each step, but the movement is physiologically taxing.
Cheetahs pay a price for their speed. Their large nasal passages leave little room for the long roots required to anchor big teeth. Without large teeth, cheetahs' fighting abilities are limited. Larger, stronger cats like lions easily overwhelm them, so cheetahs tend to opt for flight versus fight. Because of their short teeth, cheetahs must kill prey by suffocation.
An adult cheetah weighs 75 to 140 pounds (34 to 64 kilograms), is about 30 inches (77 centimeters) tall at the shoulder and 44 to 56 inches (112 to 142 centimeters) long with another 26 to 33 inches (66 to 84 centimeters) in tail length. Males are slightly larger than females. Cheetahs are sometimes confused with leopards—a much heavier animal with rosette-shaped spots and no tear marks.
Cheetahs inhabit a broad section of Africa including areas of North Africa, the Sahel, eastern and southern Africa. Over the past 50 years, cheetahs have become extinct in at least 13 countries, and they are most prevalent in Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa, and Namibia and Botswana in southern Africa. The Asiatic cheetah is known to survive in Iran, but is critically endangered. Cheetahs thrive in areas with vast expanses of land where prey is abundant. In Namibia, cheetahs live in a variety of habitats, including grasslands, savannahs, dense vegetation and mountainous terrain. As human development expands in to their preferred habitat, cheetahs can now commonly be found on commercial farms.
Cheetahs do not roar, but they make sounds including purrs, barks, growls, hisses and chirps that are unlike those of any other cat. The most common vocalization is the chirp. Another common vocalization is what has been termed the "eeaow." It is a lot like the meow of a cat, but does not have the initial low frequency. Another common vocalization is the stutter, which appears to be a direct solicitation. Males stutter when it appears that there is a high level of excitement and/or arousal toward a female. Females stutter toward cubs when they either want them to stay put or to follow her.
- Chirping: Similar to a bird's chirp or a dog's yelp, an intense chirp can be heard a mile away. Estrus females chirp to attract males. Both sexes chirp when distressed. Males may chirp when separated from members of their coalition and may chirp when reunited; mom and cubs will do the same. In a study conducted at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in 2001, chirping sounds varied from individual to individual indicating that cheetahs may be able to identify each other by chirps alone.
- Stuttering: Staccato (short, disconnected) moan that sounds like a pigeon cooing
- Purring: Similar to a house cat's purring. A close-range vocalization that may suggest contentment. It can be heard between mother and cubs. It is unusual in that it may go on for minutes and is produced continuously both while the cat inhales and exhales. In "Smithsonian Answer Book: Cats," Seidensticker and Lumpkin quote Gustav Peters as saying that "the body surface vibration during purring may serve as a tactile signal in addition to the auditory one," especially because cats are generally in close proximity to each other when purring.
- Yelping: Loud chirp, desperate call to locate another cheetah.
Cheetahs are carnivorous and eat a variety of small animals. While most cats are nocturnal predators, cheetahs are primarily diurnal, hunting in the early morning and late afternoon. Since they depend on sight more heavily than smell, they like to scan the countryside from a kopje, or the top of a termite mound. Cheetahs usually creep within 100 yards (91.4 meters) of an intended victim before the final acceleration. Full sprints last about 20 seconds.
Cheetahs eat small antelope including springbok, steenbok, duikers, impala and gazelles, as well as the young of larger animals including warthog, kudu, hartebeest, oryx, roan and sable. They also eat game birds and rabbits.
About half a cheetah's prey chases are successful. If successful in catching an animal, cheetahs suffocate their prey by clamping down on the animal's windpipe. The jaw structure of a cheetah can create a vise-like grip. Very small animals, like hares, are killed by a simple bite through the skull. But whatever the meal, large or small, cheetahs eat quickly, as they can be bullied away from their catch by lions, hyenas, and sometimes groups of vultures. Cheetahs lose about 50 percent of their food this way. Cheetahs have unusually clean eating habits: they do not return to their kill nor do they eat carrion. They leave the bones and entrails of their prey. At six weeks, the young are strong enough to follow the hunt and when they are about six months old the mother will capture live prey for them to practice killing.
Cheetahs at the Zoo are fed 3.5 pounds of ground beef each day. Frozen rabbits and beef femurs are sometimes given for enrichment. The cheetahs are either fed twice a day—a morning feeding and an afternoon/evening feeding.
Sexual maturity occurs at 18 to 23 months. The gestation period is about three months, and the average litter size is three to six cubs. While there is no definitive breeding season, a majority of births occur during the wet season. Births occurring during this time of year coincide with the gazelle birth season, increasing food resources for the cheetah.
Cubs are smoky-grey in color with long hair, called a mantle, running along their backs. They are about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and weigh nine to 12 ounces (400 grams) on average at birth. Cub mortality is high in both the wild and captivity. On average 30 percent of all cubs born in human care die within one month of birth, and in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, about 90 percent die before reaching three months of age.
At six weeks, the young are strong enough to follow the hunt and when they are about six months old the mother will capture live prey for them to practice killing.
Primarily diurnal, unlike many other species of cats.
The average lifespan of wild cheetahs is 8 to 10 years. In human care, the average lifespan is 12 to 15 years.
Historically, cheetahs ranged widely throughout Africa and Asia, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean, throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, from Israel, India and Pakistan north to the northern shores of the Caspian and Aral Seas, and west through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into central India. There were approximately 100,000 cheetahs in 1900, distributed throughout western Asia and Africa.
Over the past 50 years, cheetahs have become extinct in at least 13 countries. The Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus) survives in Iran, but is critically endangered.
An estimated 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild. The largest population, 2,500, is found in Namibia, with Southern Africa as the last remaining stronghold of roughly 4,500 adults. It is estimated that cheetahs have disappeared from 76 percent of their natural range throughout Africa. USFWS lists the cheetah as endangered and the IUCN Red list identifies them as vulnerable--facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.
Cheetahs have three main threats:
- Habitat loss, human encroachment, depletion of the wild prey base, and competition with other predators endanger cheetahs. Suitable habitat for cheetahs continues to decline due to increasing human population pressure. Even cheetahs in national parks and protected areas face severe competition where the numbers of other predators are high. Cheetahs are increasingly pushed to the fringes of parks and onto farmlands. Many farmers regard cheetahs as vermin, and trapping and killing threatens the species' numbers throughout Africa.
- Genetic studies on wild and captive cheetahs have shown that this species appears to have very low levels of genetic variation compared to other mammals. This genetic similarity is believed to have developed because of a severe population reduction, or bottleneck, that occurred about 10,000 years ago. This genetic similarity makes cheetahs more susceptible to disease (such as Feline Infectious Peritonitis ‐ FIP virus).
- Cheetahs do not consistently breed well in zoos. This may be due in part to their genetic problems but recent findings have shown that captive management may play a larger role in the success of breeding by creating optimum breeding conditions.
One tool useful for helping to manage cheetah genetics is artificial insemination, which is successful in this species thanks to years of research conducted at the Zoo. Artificial insemination is often is recommended and conducted as part of genetic management options offered by the North American Cheetah Species Survival Plan. The Zoo provides this expertise and continues to conduct research to enhance assisted breeding efficiency. Among highlights over the past 20 years has been the production of cheetah cubs by artificial insemination with fresh sperm. Of particular significance was the birth of the first cheetah cubs from artificial insemination with sperm cryopreserved from wild cheetahs in Africa and transported to the United States. Additionally, scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) are actively involved in projects being conducted in partnership with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia.
The Cheetah Conservation Station is home to two male cheetahs: Justin (nicknamed “Gat”) and Bakari. Both were born at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Hand-raised by keepers, Justin was named after 2012 Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin, who won the bronze medal in the men’s 100-meter sprint. Bakari was raised by his mother.