|Credit: Linda & Dr. Dick Buscher|
Cheetahs, the fastest land mammals in the world, are built for speed. They can reach running speeds of up to 70 mph (113 kph), and they can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (97 kph) in three seconds — faster than most cars. A single bound can cover 22 feet (7 meters), thanks to a flexible spine that lets their front legs extend extra far.
Their deep chests and enlarged hearts, lungs and nostrils help cheetahs take in more oxygen during intense chases. Their high-set eyes have a 210-degree field of view. Non-retractable claws help them gain traction when running on soft ground, and their tails help them balance as they make sharp, high-speed turns while chasing their prey.
Full-grown cheetahs are about 4 feet (1.2 m) long, not including a 30-inch (76-centimeter) tail. They weigh about 75 to 145 pounds (34 to 66 kilograms) and are 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 m)tall at the shoulder.
Cheetahs' golden coats are embellished with many small black spots, which helps them blend in with their grassy habitat.
Cheetahs prey on warthogs, gazelles, antelopes, rabbits, porcupines and even ostriches, and they catch their prey by chasing it down. These chases cost the cheetah an enormous amount of energy, and they're usually all over in less than a minute.
Once a cheetah catches its prey, it holds it with a strangling bite to the neck. The cheetah is usually panting heavily, due to the intense chase, and its body temperature can reach 105 degrees F (41 degrees C). After about 20 minutes the cheetah's breathing and temperature return to normal, and by then its prey has suffocated.
Lions and leopards can attack a cheetah and steal its kill, so cheetahs try to avoid them by hunting in the middle of the day. Cheetahs usually eat their prey right away since they're not strong enough to hide it or fend off other predators.
Female cheetahs are solitary, but males live in small permanent groups called coalitions, which are usually made up of brothers. Both males and females hunt alone. Usually only one male in a coalition mates with any particular female.
Cheetahs can breed at any time of year, but they tend to mate in the dry season. Baby cheetahs are born about three months later, at the start of the wet season. There are usually three to five cubs in a litter, and each newborn cheetah cub weighs only 5 to 10 ounces (142 to 284 grams).
The mother cheetah hides her cubs until they're five or six weeks old; after that, the cubs follow their mom and share her kills. They wean when they're around three months old and live with their mother for about 18 months. The female cubs then head off on their own, while the males remain together for life in a coalition.
Cheetahs live to be about 12 years old in the wild and as long as 17 years in zoos.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Felidae
- Genus: Acinonyx
- Species: Acinonyx jubatus
- Subspecies: A. jubatushecki (Northwest African cheetah), A. jubatusvenaticus (Asiatic cheetah), A. jubatus jubatus, A. jubatus raineyi, A. jubatus soemmeringii, A. jubatus velox (The exact number of subspecies isn't definitively decided.)
Most cheetahs live in southwestern and eastern Africa, but the Asiatic cheetah (A. jubatusvenaticus) is found only in Iran.
Cheetahs roam grasslands, savannas and semi-arid prairies — any area with open land and plenty of prey is good cheetah habitat. [The Wild Cats of Kruger National Park]
Vulnerable to Critically Endangered
Overall, the species is vulnerable, but two subspecies (A. jubatusvenaticus and A. jubatushecki) are both critically endangered. Fewer than 100 Asiatic cheetahs and 250 Northwest African cheetahs remain.
There are about 7,500 adult cheetahs living in the wild. Scientists think the species has declined by about 30 percent over the last three generations, or about 18 years. Their biggest threats are habitat loss and hunting by humans, either for trade or to protect livestock.
Odd cheetah facts
A cheetah's feet don't touch the ground for more than half of the time it's running. [Look Quick: Gallery of the Fastest Beasts on Land]
Cheetahs can turn in midair while sprinting after their prey.
King cheetahs have lengthwise stripes and are very rare. Their distinct markings are due to a recessive gene.
The name "cheetah" in English is derived from the Hindi word "chita," which means "spotted one."
Emperors and other royalty hunted gazelles with trained cheetahs in the 16th century.
Cheetahs are very vocal. They make a unique bird-like sound called a "chirrup" when they're excited or calling their cubs. They can't roar like lions or tigers, but they do growl, hiss, snarl, moan, bleat and purr.
They get the moisture they need from the bodies of their prey, so cheetahs rarely need to drink water.
Cheetahs are the only cats with black tear marks on their faces. Scientists think these might act as sun protection, like football players painting black marks under their eyes. [Vision Quiz: What Can Animals See?]
- IUCN Red List: Cheetahs
- PBS Nature Animal Guide — Cheetah
- San Diego Zoo Animal Bytes — Cheetah
- National Geographic Cheetah Facts
- Animal Planet Cheetah Facts
- Smithsonian National Zoo Cheetah Facts