|Geographical Range||Sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Iran|
|Habitat||Open and semi-arid savannas; light woodlands|
|Scientific Name||Acinonyx jubatus|
The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, sprinting up to 70 miles per hour! However, this fast cat can only maintain its top speed for short distances (less than one-half mile, due to a poor internal cooling system).
Built for Speed
Cheetahs are made for sprinting. Their slender, streamlined body allows fast runs and their flexible spine and long legs enable the cat to take big strides. They also have over-sized lungs, heart, and breathing passages, so they're able to pump more oxygen during runs. Their long tail acts like a counter balance when running, and semi-retractable claws provide better traction during sprints.
Being fast helps cheetahs chase down prey, but these cats also have other traits that help them hunt. Their spotted coat provides good camouflage -- perfect for sneaking up on unsuspecting victims! And the black "teardrops" under each eye may enhance their vision by reducing glare from the sun.
On the Hunt
Early morning and late afternoon are prime hunting times for cheetahs. The first step is to locate the prey. To do this, cheetahs often sit on a termite mound or tree limb to scan the countryside. Though they like gazelles best, cheetahs also keep an eye out for impalas, springhares, birds, and the young of warthogs, kudu, hartebeest, and other mammals.
Once a cheetah has selected its prey, the chase begins! The cheetah tries to get within 50 yards of the intended victim before accelerating to top speed. Most sprints last only about twenty seconds (and rarely exceed one minute). During the chase, the cheetah uses its front claws to trip its prey. The cat quickly dispatches its victim with a bite to the throat (or through the skull, for small animals).
Cheetahs usually eat every two to five days. And they must eat quickly, because their food is often stolen by larger, more powerful animals (like lions, leopards, and hyenas).
Not Your Average Kittens
For cheetahs, the peak season for births is March through June (though they can breed any time of year). A female gives birth to a litter of one to eight cubs, with four being the average. At birth the cubs are about one foot long and weight only one-half pound. They're gray in color, and have a mantle of mane-like hair that may provide camouflage when the youngsters are laying in the grass.
During the first few weeks of life, the mother moves her cubs often to avoid enemies. But she has to leave them alone when she goes off to hunt, and during these times many cubs are killed by lions and other predators.
When cubs are about six weeks old, they start to follow their mom around and to learn how to hunt. They remain with her for 13 to 20 months. Young cheetahs are fully mature at about two years of age.
Race for Survival
Cheetahs are in trouble in the wild. In the last century, the cheetah population has declined from 100,000 to fewer than 10,000 individuals, and the species has become extinct in at least 13 countries.
Cheetahs face many problems, including habitat loss, poaching, and competition with large predators. They also run into trouble with ranchers, who often mistakenly blame cheetahs for livestock losses -- and shoot them. Finally, cheetahs lack genetic diversity. This means that individuals in the population are very closely related, and so are at greater risk from diseases.
Is anything being done to help cheetahs? Yes! Various conservation organizations, including the Saint Louis Zoo, are working to save these animals before it's too late. Through their efforts, cheetahs may win their race for survival. (See side story.)
- Male cheetahs often form coalitions of two to five individuals, usually related, that remain together for life. Females are normally solitary, except when they're raising their young.
- Cheetahs use "play trees" to meet other cheetahs in the wild. The play tree usually has a horizontal trunk or branches -- perfect for climbing and marking with urine and feces, the cheetah's calling card!
- The mane-like mantle of cheetah cubs disappears between three and six months -- the time when cubs are weaned.