The cheetah is a big cat that lives in Africa and Asia. The name comes from the Sanskrit word citrakayah. “Citra” means variegated – displaying different spots and streaks, and “kaya” is a Sanskrit word for body. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The cheetah used to roam throughout Africa and Asia. Today, the cat can only be found in certain regions of Africa, and a small area in Iran. They have lost 75% of their original habitat. Most prefer to live in open areas where there is an abundance of prey. They can also be found in savannahs, mountain terrain, grasslands and dense woodland.
Scientific Name: Acinonyx jubatus
Additional Cheetah information links:
Cheetah Conservation Organizations
There are several subspecies of cheetah, including:
- Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) (Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan)
- Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki): Northwest and western Africa
- Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii, inhabits central Africa
- Acinonyx jubatus raineyii, a cheetah that lives in eastern Africa
- Acinonyx jubatus jubatus, can be found in southern Africa
- Acinonyx jubatus velox
Genetically, all cheetahs are very similar to each other.
It is believed the cheetahs began appearing in Africa between 7.5 and 26 million years ago. However more current research shows that their last common ancestor lived in Asia 11 million years ago.
Cheetahs have a long chest, tiny waist and small head. Adults can weigh up to 160 lbs. Their body is 43 to 59 inches in length, with a tail that is an additional 2 to almost 3 feet in length. The long tail helps the cheetah make quick turns when the cat is running. Males are somewhat bigger than cheetahs. The cats have strong back legs and muscles, which enable them to move extremely fast.
The cat’s fur is short and coarse, tan in color and covered with spots. At the end of the cat’s tail, the spots merge into several dark rings. Black stripes that look like tears run from the corner of the cheetah’s eyes to the side of its nose and mouth. Their spot patterns are unique for each cat. Because of their coloring, they are often mistaken for leopards. Rarely, the fur will be black, white or grey.
Cheetahs with larger black spots that have merged are called “king cheetahs.” Although once believed to be a separate subspecies, the King Cheetah is an African cat with a mutation in the pattern of its fur. They are rarely seen in the wild.
Hunting & Prey
The cheetah is known for being the world’s fastest land animal. It can reach speeds of up to 75 mph when racing across open land. The cat’s diet will vary depending on where it lives. They will eat hares, guineafowl, gazelle, springbok (a type of antelope/gazelle) and the impala. Sometimes the cat will eat zebras and wildebeests.
Cheetahs will hunt in the early morning and at dusk when there is still some light, compared to other cats who are nocturnal hunters. This is because the cat hunts by sight instead of smell. They are not aggressive cats and their kill will often be taken by another predator.
Cheetahs can live up to 12 years in the wild, and 20 years in captivity.
Females will usually have had their first litter by the time they are two years old. Mating occurs all year long and, for the females, with different males. A female will have between three to five cubs at a time, but can also have as many as nine. Cubs are grey in color, with woolly hair (also called a mantle) that runs down their back.
The female will raise the cubs on her own. She will frequently change the location of her den to keep her cubs safe. Even so, a high percentage of cubs end up being killed by other predators.
At around 18 months, the mother will leave the cubs, and the siblings will form their own group. Within a few years, the young females with leave the group. The remaining young males will stay together for the rest of their life. Sometimes a single young male without siblings will join another group of males.
Cheetahs purr, chirp, yowl, growl, hiss, spit and chur, but they do not roar. Chirping is the sound a cheetah mother will make when it is trying to find her cubs.
Interesting & Unique Characteristics
- The cheetah runs faster than any other land animal, reaching speeds of up to 75 mph.
- Cheetahs can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in three seconds
- The cheetah, along with only three other cats (the fishing cat, the flat-headed cat and the Iriomote cat) have semi-retractable claws.
- Cheetahs were once tamed and used to hunt antelopes.
- Cheetahs can go for up to three or four days without water.