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Cheetahs: The Fastest Land Animals

Cheetahs are large, spotted cats that live in various parts of Africa. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus), known as the fastest land animals, have long, slender bodies covered with unique black spots scattered across their tan coats. The name cheetah comes from the Sanskrit word "chitraka," which means "the spotted one," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

With aerodynamic bodies, long legs and blunt, semi-retractable claws, cheetahs are formidable carnivores that can sprint at speeds of up to 60 to 70 mph (96 to 112 km/h), according to the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Physical characteristics

Adult cheetahs are, on average, 30 inches (77 centimeters) tall at the shoulder, and 44 to 56 inches (112 to 142 cm) long from head to rump, with their tails adding another 26 to 33 inches (66 to 84 cm). Typically, these large cats weigh between 75 and 140 lbs. (34 to 64 kilograms), according to the Smithsonian.

Cheetahs are the fastest land animal and can reach sprinting seeds as fast as 45 mph in just 2.5 seconds. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Cheetahs have long, thin bodies with long, powerful legs and a flexible spine. Such characteristics allow these runners to stretch their long bodies when they sprint and cover significant ground with each rapid stride — around 20 to 22 feet (6 to 6.7 meters) per stride, according to the San Diego Zoo. Cheetahs have been known to accelerate from 0 to 45 mph (72 km/h) in just 2.5 seconds. For comparison, the fastest cars in the world can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 3.5 seconds, according to Consumer Reports.

Cheetahs can also turn very quickly, even while in midair, thanks to their long tail, which counters their body weight. Their semi-retractable claws, similar to dog claws, provide great traction during sprints and sudden turns.

A cheetah's spotted coat helps it blend into its environment when it's resting, stalking prey and hiding from predators. Cheetahs also contain signature black tear streaks on their faces that go from their eyes to their mouths.

The social lives of cheetahs

Female cheetahs tend to be solitary, while males typically live in groups made up of other male siblings called coalitions, according to the Smithsonian. Females socialize with males only when mating but then raise their offspring on their own.

The gestation period of female cheetahs is around 3 months and litter sizes are typically between three and five cubs, according to the San Diego Zoo. Cubs weigh between 5 and 10 ounces (150 to 300 grams) when born, not much larger than a newborn housecat, which typically weight between 3 and 4 ounces. Cubs are born with all their spots and long manes called mantles on their neck and shoulders, which disappear as they get older. [Photos: Cat Album: The Life of a Cheetah]

When the cubs reach about 6 months of age, the mother will start teaching them to hunt and avoid predators, such as lions and hyenas. The mother will keep her cubs on the move as they try to avoid predators. Mothers live with their cubs for about 18 months. Even under the mother’s watchful eye, about 70 percent of cubs are killed by predators that include lions and hyenas.

Cheetah mothers live with their cubs for about 18 months. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Littermates tend to stay together for another 6 to 8 months, and then the female siblings leave the group to live on their own. Male siblings tend to stick together in groups of two or three, called a coalition, so that they can better protect their territories. Lone males are not common and typically do not survive for long on their own. If they make it, cheetahs live up to 12 years in the wild (up to 17 years in captivity).

According to the Smithsonian, male cheetahs reach sexual maturity around the age of 2. At that point, the coalition will seek out an area far away from their mother, occasionally traveling up to 300 miles (482 kilometers). Their territories usually span 5 to 10 square miles (13 to 26 square km) and can extend up to 50 square miles (130 square km).

Females typically stick a little closer to home, yet live on their own. They tend to follow the migration path of gazelles, a primary food source.

During daybreak and dusk, cheetahs spend their time stalking and catching prey. Unlike other species of large cats, cheetahs don't go for the throat right away in an attack. Instead, they will run up to the animal and knock it over; then, they will suffocate their prey by clamping down on the throat with their strong jaws. Cheetahs often try to hide the corpse so other animals won't help themselves. They're not very good at it, though, and vultures and other animals will often steal a cheetah's kill.

Cheetahs are carnivores whose typical prey are small- to medium-size animals, such as gazelles, hares, young wildebeest, warthogs and birds.

What did you say?

Unlike other large cats, cheetahs can’t roar. But they can purr just like house cats.

Compared to other big cats, such as lions, tigers, and leopards, cheetahs have a wide vocabulary, according to the Smithsonian. In addition to purring, they are able to produce a large range of vocal cues such as chirping (similar to a bird chirp or dog's yelp); stuttering (a short, disconnected moan); hissing; yelping (loud chirp that can be heard up to a mile away); and an "eeaow" sound, which is similar to a house cat’s meow.

Each vocalization has a specific meaning. Various types of chirping, for example, could be a mother giving instructions to her cubs, or a female trying to attract a male to mate.

A group of cheetahs survey the area. Male siblings tend to stick together in coalitions and protect their shared territories. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Habitat and conservation status

Cheetahs are found across Africa, primarily in northern Africa; the Sahel (the transition region between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south); and they are scattered across eastern and southern Africa, according to the Smithsonian. A small population lives in Iran, where they are critically endangered.

Cheetahs live in a variety of environments. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, cheetahs can be found in dry forests, grasslands, open plains and desert regions. These large felines do not need much water to survive — they get most of what they need while eating.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species, most cheetah subspecies are considered vulnerable. All populations of cheetah are on the decline, with the total population estimated at less than 7,000 individuals.

According to the Smithsonian, there were at least 100,000 cheetahs living throughout western Asia and across Africa in 1900. Now, the cats are extinct in at least 13 of their native countries and have lost as much as 90 percent of their original range. The largest population of cheetahs is a group of approximately 2,500 in Namibia.

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, the cheetahs' steep population decline is associated with issues such as habitat loss, human conflict and illegal trade and poaching.

Conservation efforts are underway to try and help the population regrow. Groups such as the African Wildlife Foundation and the Cheetah Conservation Fund work locally with communities near cheetah populations to create sustainable solutions for agriculture and population growth so that both the cats and humans have space. Protected areas and wildlife parks, such as the Cheetah Experience in South Africa, protect cheetahs as their habitats are taken away.

Captive breeding programs at zoos, such as the San Diego Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoo, are working to help the cheetah population grow. The programs are also striving to overcome the lack of genetic variation within wild cheetah populations.

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This article was updated on Oct23, 2018by Live Science Contributor Rachel Ross.