|Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher|
Cheetahs are big cats, members of the Felidae family and closely related to bobcats, lynxes and pumas. These graceful animals are identified by their unique black spots on gold or yellow coats and are known for their amazing speed.
In fact, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, the cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal. A sprinting cheetah can reach 45 mph (72 km/h) within 2.5 seconds. The cat can sustain its top speed, up to 64 mph (103 km/h), only briefly.
Cheetahs are 3.5 to 4.5 feet (1.1 to 1.4 meters) long from head to rump, and their tails add an additional 25.5 to 31.5 inches (65 to 80 centimeters). Normally, these big cats weigh around 77 to 143 lbs. (35 to 65 kilograms), according to National Geographic.
Where do cheetahs live?
Cheetahs are mostly found in sub-Saharan Africa and in eastern and southern African parks. Some of the animals can still be found in southern Algeria, northern Niger and Iran. They like dry, open grasslands where they can pick up speed to kill prey.
During daybreak and dusk, cheetahs spend their time stalking and catching prey. Usually, large cats go for the throat right away in a pursuit, but cheetahs do not do this. Instead, they will first run up to the animal and knock it over; then, they will suffocate their prey by clamping down on the throat. Cheetahs will hide the corpse so other animals won't steal it. Hiding their food usually doesn't work, though, as vultures and other animals will often take a kill.
Cheetahs are carnivores, meaning their primary food is meat. The predators stick to smaller prey, such as gazelles, hares, young wildebeest, warthogs and birds.
These cats were made for a dry lifestyle. They only need to drink water every three or four days. [Photos: Cat Album: The Life of a Cheetah]
Though male cheetahs are social, they are picky about who they hang out with. According to the Smithsonian, male cheetahs live in small groups called coalitions that usually consist of brothers.
Female cheetahs, on the other hand, are loners and only spend time with their young. The only other time females are around cheetahs is during mating season.
Female cheetahs carry their young for a gestation period of around three months. On average, the mother will give birth to three young at once. Baby cheetahs, called cubs, are very small when they are born, weighing 5 to10 ounces (150 to 300 grams), according to the San Diego Zoo.
As the cubs grow, the mother teaches them how to hunt and other essentials. Cubs will stay with their mothers for one and a half to two years.
Even under a mother's watch, 90 percent of cubs still die before they are three months old, according to the Smithsonian. Lions and hyenas often eat the young cheetahs. If they do make it to adulthood, the cats only live for around 10 to 12 years.
The taxonomy of the cheetah, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), is:
Genus & species: Acinonyx jubatus
- Acinonyx jubatus hecki (found in northwest Africa)
- Acinonyx jubatus jubatus (found in southern Africa)
- Acinonyx jubatus raineyi (found in central Africa)
- Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii (found in northeast Africa)
- Acinonyx jubatus venaticus (Asiatic cheetah, found in Iran)
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species, most cheetah subspecies are considered vulnerable. The Asiatic cheetah, which is found only in Iran, is critically endangered, with only about 200 remaining. All populations of cheetah are on the decline, with the total population estimated at less than 15,000 by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The cheetah has an extra-large heart, nostrils and lungs that help the cat process more oxygen while running. The animal's body is also aerodynamic for more speed.
The cheetah's spotted fur helps it blend into the grass so that it can stay hidden from prey until ready to pursue.
Once, emperors and other royalty kept cheetahs as pets. In the 16th century, cheetahs were trained and used to hunt gazelles.
- PBS Nature Animal Guide: Cheetah
- San Diego Zoo: Cheetah
- National Geographic: Cheetah Facts
- Smithsonian National Zoo: Cheetah Facts