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Cheetah – The Fastest Animal on the Planet

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a big and very agile cat that is part of the Acinonyx genus and a member of the Felidae family.

Cheetahs can be found today in Northern Africa in the area located under the Sahara desert, but also in the East and the South of the continent, and in a few areas of Iran.

Brief History of Cheetahs

About 10,000 years ago (until the end of the last Ice Age), cheetahs and other mammals lived in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

Due to the massive climatic changes that took place then, almost all cheetahs from North America, Europe, Asia and Africa have vanished.

A small number of cheetahs have survived, and this could be the reason why today, cheetahs are closely related as if they were identical twins.

Many cheetahs were kept as pets in the past, and even today they are kept for games and hunting.

Cheetah Taxonomy

Many cheetahs were kept as pets in the past and even today, and used for games and hunting.

The cheetah represents today the only extant species contained by the genus Acinonyx, but is also a member of the Felinae subfamily where we can find the puma, lynxes and wildcats.

The Puma lineage consists of the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), the Cougar (Puma concolor) and the Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

The Puma lineage has also a sister group called Felis where we can find the Jungle cat (Felis chaus), the Black-footed cat (Felis nigripes), the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris), the Sand cat (Felis margarita), the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) and the Domestic cat (Felis catus).

There are several known subspecies of cheetah:

1. The Northeast African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) is a cheetah subspecies that can be found today in countries like South Sudan and Ethiopia.

In Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Sudan the cheetah populations are unknown.

2. The Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki) is known as the Saharan cheetah and is a cheetah subspecies native to the Sahara desert and the Sahel, in countries such as Algeria, Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger.

Small populations of cheetah still live today in the Ahaggar Mountains and the Tassili N’Ajjer National Park.

3. The Southern African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus) known as the Namibian cheetah lives in the East and South African countries such as Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique.

4. The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is known today as the Iranian cheetah and is a Critically Endangered subspecies of cheetah that lives today only in a few areas of Iran.

Cheetah Characteristics

The cheetah is a slightly different cat than its cousins because it has long legs, a slender body with a deep chest and a long tail, and also a small rounded head with small ears.

The cheetah is taller than a leopard reaching a shoulder height between 28 and 35 inch (70 to 90 cm) and a weight between 46 and 159 lbs (21 to 72 kg).

Being taller and lighter than a leopard, the cheetah is a very fast cat, it can reach a top speed of 70 mph (113 km/h) when chasing prey, and this is the reason why the cheetah is the fastest land animal today.

The tail of the cheetah is long and strong (muscular) reaching a length between 24 and 31 inch (60 to 80 cm), and is used to take sharp turns when hunting at high speeds.

The cheetah is a big cat with sexual dimorphism because males are generally larger than females.

The fur is fluffy and covers the deep chest and the ventral side of the cat.

The color of the fur can be yellowish or greyish white, but in Africa have been already observed melanistic and albino cheetahs.

Adults can have a short mane 3.1 inch long (8 cm) that covers the neck and the shoulders, and juveniles have a dark fur with long and loose hair that has a blue to grey color.

Cheetahs have slightly curved claws that lack the protective sheath and are only semi-retractable (like the members of the Canidae family), which differs from the other big cats.

Some people can confuse the cheetah with a leopard because they don’t know that the cheetah has small round spots instead of rosettes like the leopard.

However, the cheetah prefers trees (like leopards) only when hiding from larger predators, but they are not so strong, so they prefer prey that is fast and light.

There is also a variety of cheetah called the King cheetah that features a rare mutation consisting of a cream-colored fur with long black hair, large dark spots on the back and a number of three dark and wide stripes that extend from their neck to the tail.

Cheetah Behaviour and Social Organization

Female cheetahs prefer to remain solitary, but if they have big cubs or adolescent siblings, they can form groups exactly like males.

Males are territorial, but they prefer to form groups or “coalitions” (brothers that remained together after weaning).

The group will better defend the territory and will have a higher success rate when hunting.

Lone males can join already existing groups to make the coalition even stronger.

Females are not territorial at all, and they rather prefer to spend time with their cubs, even when becoming adolescents.

Cheetah Speed and Acceleration

Cheetahs are famous today for their extreme acceleration and top speed reached while hunting.

Measurements have shown that cheetahs almost never reach their top speed while hunting because the prey does not run in straight line.

During the chase, the average speed reached by a cheetah is only around 40 mph (64 km/h).

However, during the same chase there are moments when the cheetah needs to accelerate very fast for short distances when it can reach extreme speeds between 65 and 75 mph (104 – 120 km/h).

In captivity, a female cheetah named Sarah from the Cincinnati Zoo was measured in 2012 achieving a top speed of 61 mph (98 km/h) during a race in a straight line.

Sarah established a world record by running 330 ft (100 m) in only 5.95 seconds.

Cheetah Hunting Behavior

Cheetahs are not nocturnal hunters like other big cats such as lions, leopards, tigers, etc., they prefer to hunt mainly during the day when the prey can be easily seen.

They also need to see the land well when running at high speed, so they prefer the daylight instead of the sunset or the night.

Cheetahs prefer easy prey because they are built to catch prey by running fast, so they like to hunt Blesbok antelope, duiker (a medium-sized antelope), Grant’s gazelle, impala (another medium-sized antelope), reedbuck (a light and fast African antelope), springbok (another medium-sized antelope), Thomson’s gazelle, bushbuck, Oribi (a small antelope), Steenbok and bat-eared fox.

When hunting in groups. cheetahs prefer larger prey such as kudu, hartebeest, Nyala, roan antelope, sable antelope and waterbuck.

Less frequently they can hunt Gemsbok, ostrich, giraffe, warthog, wildebeest, zebra and even African buffalo.

Cheetahs living in Asia prefer to hunt rodents, desert hare, goitered gazelle, ibex, chinkara (Indian gazelle) and even wild sheep.

They generally prefer to hunt prey that weighs under 290 lbs. (130 kg).

In Sahara and Masai Mara, cheetahs prefer to hunt at sunset to avoid the extreme heat during the day.

When they catch prey, they choke it fast, and start eating right away to avoid loosing the kill.

Hyenas, lions, wild dogs and leopards usually try to steal their kill.

Competition from other predators

Being built to run very fast, cheetahs have a small chance when confronting other predators.

Lions, hyenas, wild dogs and leopards in Africa and grey wolves, leopards, striped hyenas and caracals (a medium-sized wild cat) in Asia, are all competing with the cheetah, so when the cheetahs catch a prey in about 10 to 15% of the cases they lose the kill for other predators.

After catching the prey, a group of cheetahs will kill and eat the prey peacefully, but a cheetah that was no involved in the hunt, will start eating the kill right away.

A female with cubs will be highly vigilant when hunting because besides defending the kill, she also needs to protect her cubs from the other dangerous predators that are attracted by the kill such as lions, hyenas, wild dogs and from time to time leopards.

Lions will often attack cheetahs (they also attack other predators such as leopards, hyenas and wild dogs), not only to steal their kill, but also kill them in order to reduce competition.

Lions catch cheetah cubs, and they are able to catch adult cheetahs only if the cheetah turns its back to the lions and does not notice that the lion is prepared to attack.

In such cases, the lions (usually males) will catch the cheetah and will brutally kill it not for eating, but just to remove some of the competition from the savanna.

Cheetah Conservation

Cheetah populations in Africa and Asia are considered today vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but a co-operation between the African and Asian countries where cheetahs live today has been proposed to minimize the conflict between cheetahs and farmers.

The number of cheetahs in the world decreases due to habitat loss, due to the fact that farmers are protecting their livestock that graze in the cheetah territory, due to the reduction of natural prey in the wilderness, deforestation, etc.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund is considered today the most important research and lobby institution in Namibia that sustains the cheetah population in the country.

More projects protecting cheetahs are required today to save this amazing cat from a path that leads towards extinction.

Cheetah distribution in Africa and Asia.

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.