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Cheetahs: Earth's fastest land animals

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

Known as the fastest land animals, cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are members of the big cat family, which includes tigers, jaguars, lions, leopards, snow leopards and pumas. Their name comes from the Hindi word "chita," which means "spotted one," according to the book “Cheetahs: Biology and Conservation” (Elsevier, 2018).

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.

What do cheetahs look like?

Adult cheetahs are, on average, 2.5 feet (0.8 meters) tall at the shoulder, and up to nearly 5 feet (1.5 m) long from head to rump, with their tails adding another 26 to 33 inches (66 to 84 centimeters). Typically, these large cats weigh between 75 and 140 lbs. (34 to 64 kilograms), according to the Smithsonian.

Cheetah Taxonomy

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Acinonyx
Species: jubatus

Like leopards and jaguars, cheetahs have black spots scattered across their tan coats. But while leopard and jaguar spots are arranged in rosette patterns,  cheetahs’ spots are solid and fairly uniform in size, and are evenly distributed across the body. Cheetahs’ spotted coats help them blend into the environment when resting, stalking prey and hiding from predators. Much like a human fingerprint, these markings are unique from cat to cat. 

Cheetahs also have signature black "tear stains" on their faces — one trailing from the inner corner of each eye, down to the mouth.

How fast do cheetahs run?

Cheetahs' long, slender bodies, powerful legs and flexible spine enable them to fully stretch their bodies when they sprint and cover significant ground  — around 20 to 22 feet (6 to 6.7 m) 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. As noted by Women's Health Magazine, the fastest a human can run is about 28 mph (45 km/h), which means it's impossible for a person to outrun a cheetah on foot. 

Cheetahs can execute quick turns even while in midair thanks to their long tail, which counters their body weight. Their semi-retractable claws, which are more dog-like than a typical cat claw, provide great traction during sprints and sudden changes in direction.

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

Where do cheetahs live?

Cheetahs are native to Africa and Asia, although the Asiatic cheetah has become all but extinct. According to the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the large cats currently only inhabit about 10% of their historic range, and are primarily found in North Africa, the Sahel (the region between the Sahara Desert and the Sudanian savanna), eastern Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), and southern Africa (Namibia and Botswana). A small population also lives in Iran, where they are critically endangered.

Cheetahs don't have one home location where they seek shelter day in and day out. Instead, these nomadic cats have home territories or ranges — expanses of grasslands, savannas, forest land and mountainous terrain, ranging from 5 to over 300 square miles (13 to over 780 square kilometers) in size, which they regularly roam, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo. When not actively hunting, they prefer to sleep and rest in tall grasses, under trees, or on rocky outposts. 

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

How do cheetahs socialize?

While female cheetahs tend to live alone or with their cubs, males typically live in small groups called "coalitions," which are made up of male cheetah siblings. Females socialize with males only when mating, and they raise their offspring on their own.

The gestation period for cheetahs is around three months, and litter sizes vary between three and five cubs, according to the San Diego Zoo. Cheetah cubs weigh between 5 and 10 ounces (140 to 280 grams) when born — not much larger than newborn housecats, which typically weigh 3 to 4 ounces (90 to 110 g). Cubs are born with all their spots, as well as mane-like hair on their neck and shoulders. However, these so-called "mantles" disappear as the cubs age. 

Related: Cat photo album: The life of a cheetah

When cubs reach about 6 months old, the mother will start teaching them to hunt and avoid predators, such as lions, hyenas, eagles and humans. Mothers live with their cubs for about 18 months, but even under the mother's watchful eye, only about 5% of cheetah cubs survive to adulthood, according to AWF.

The littermates that do survive tend to stay together for another six to eight months, after which the female siblings leave the group to live on their own. Male siblings tend to stick together in coalitions of two or three, so that they can better protect their territories. Lone males are not common and typically do not survive for long on their own. 

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

According to the Smithsonian, male cheetahs reach sexual maturity around the age of 2. At that point, the coalition will seek out a new home range far away — sometimes as far as 300 miles (428 km) — from their mother's range. Male territories usually span 5 to 10 square miles (13 to 26 square km) and can extend up to 50 square miles (130 square km).

Young females typically stick closer to home, sometimes even occupying the same range as their mother, though living independent of her. Their home ranges are more extensive than those of males and can cover up to 370 square miles (960 square km), largely as a result of the big cats following the migration path of gazelles, a primary food source.

In the wild, cheetahs have lifespans of 8 to 10 years. In captivity, they can live longer — around 15 years or more — due to human care and lack of natural predators.

Cheetah in Kruger National Park chasing warthog at full speed.

A cheetah in Kruger National Park chases a warthog at full speed. (Image credit: Image via Shutterstock)

What do cheetahs eat?

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

During daybreak and dusk, cheetahs spend their time stalking and catching prey. Because their teeth are short compared to other big cats, notes the Smithsonian, cheetahs don't go for the throat right away in an attack. Instead, they suffocate their prey by clamping down on the animal’s throat with their strong jaws. Cheetahs often try to hide the corpse so other animals won't help themselves to it. They meet with varied success, as vultures and other animals often steal a cheetah's kill.

Despite being carnivores, cheetahs are the most timid of the big cats, and rarely attack humans. Only a handful of non-fatal cheetah-human attacks occur each year, and those almost always involve aggravated cheetahs in captivity. For example, between 1990 and 2012, only nine of the 300 documented incidents involving big cats had to do with cheetahs, according to the Humane Society of the United States

Cheetah family

Cheetah cubs stay with their mother for about 18 months. (Image credit: Kerstin Meyer/Getty)

What does a cheetah sound like?

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

Compared with 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 (1.6 km) 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.

Cheetah twins arrive at the Denver Zoo in July, 2012

Zoos and conservation organizations breed and raise cheetahs in captivity in an effort to increase the global cheetah population despite habitat loss and other disruptions. These two cheetahs arrived at the Denver Zoo in July, 2012. (Image credit: Denver Zoo)

Are cheetahs endangered?

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species, most cheetah subspecies are considered "vulnerable," meaning their populations are in decline and the species is likely to become endangered if the circumstances threatening its survival don't improve. All populations of cheetah are on the decline, Live Science previously reported, with the total wild population estimated at less than 6,700 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% 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 tied to habitat loss, human conflict and illegal trade and poaching.

Conservation efforts are underway to try and help the population rebound. 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 sufficient 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 like 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.

Additional resources

This article was originally written by Live Science contributor Alina Bradford and has since been updated.

Tiffany Means

Tiffany Means is a meteorologist turned science writer. Her work has appeared in Yale Climate Connections, The Farmers' Almanac, and other publications. Tiffany has a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science from the University of North Carolina, Asheville, and is earning a master's in science writing at Johns Hopkins University. Follow her on Twitter @tifmeans.