Acinonyx jubatus

Quick Bio for Cheetahs:

Status: Vulnerable
have from 1-6 cubs, usually 2
Weight: 20-70 kg
Diet: Carnivore

Physical description of Cheetahs

Cheetahs are lean, mean hunting machines, and this is clearly visible in their physical stature. They are slim, long-legged, with relatively small streamlined heads. In proportion to their height, they are fairly lightweight in comparison with other cats. The cheetah is built for speed rather than strength.

Cheetahs range from 100 – 150 cm in length, and the tail is an additional 75 cm, which is used as a counter balance when turning at high speeds. Height ranges from 70 – 100 cm, and weight from 20 – 75 kg.

Distinctive features include narrower paws and less retractable claws in comparison with other cats, this aids high speed maneuverability and traction, equivalent to a sprinter’s shoe with spikes. The skull is shorter and wider than other cats, with a larger nasal capacity to intake more oxygen for power sprints.

A cheetah’s fur is pale yellow or fawn-colored, and covered in small close-set black spots. The stomach area is often lighter than the rest of the fur. To facilitate camouflage and make the eyes less visible to its prey, cheetahs sport two ‘tears’, vertical black lines on their faces.

Young cheetahs have a distinctive mane that protrudes over the head and neck to enable them to hide in the grass whilst waiting for their mother to return from hunting. The mane gradually diminishes through adolescence, to become the shorter, aerodynamic fur of adulthood.

The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is common and easily found on safari in Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. One must not believe this means that cheetahs are ok. Their populations are still under threat.
Licensed from Shutterstock
The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is common and easily found on safari in Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. One must not believe this means that cheetahs are ok. Their populations are still under threat.

Distribution and habitat of Cheetahs

Historically, Cheetahs ranged all over Africa (except the dense jungle and desert), throughout the Middle East and as far as Turkmenistan and India. This range had drastically reduced by the 1980s, and currently, cheetahs are scattered around 25 countries in Africa and a small pocket surviving in Iran. The most visible populations are in the grasslands of Eastern and Southern Africa.

Cheetahs prefer hunting in the open space of grasslands and arid regions, and as such, are not commonly found in forested areas.

Cheetah behavior

Both males and females are solitary, with the exception of mating and raising young. Whilst territories may overlap, females avoid social contact. Male territories seldom encroach upon one another, with the exception of a coalition, wherein many males forego solitude to form bachelor groups when they leave their mother.

Cooperation strengthens their ability to defend a larger territory upon which to hunt bigger prey. Groups with the closest relationships endure the longest, brothers and related cheetahs demonstrate stronger social bonding with grooming, than members of a non-related alliance.

Outside of coalitions, solitary male cheetahs lack the capability to dominate a territory and have to migrate to seek suitable hunting grounds, which is dependent on the quality of the habitat.

Cheetahs are primarily asocial animals living solitary lives. There is however a need for intercommunication. Upon returning from hunting, females will locate their cubs by calling to them, and males who form a coalition tend to call out when they are separated from their peers.

Scent marking is also a form of communication since the cats seldom encounter one other.

Four Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) sitting on a hill looking for prey in Maasai Mara, Kenya. Cheetah males often form an alliance to improve their success rate at hunting.
Licensed from Shutterstock
Four Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) sitting on a hill looking for prey in Maasai Mara, Kenya. Cheetah males often form an alliance to improve their success rate at hunting.

What do Cheetahs eat?

Cheetahs are carnivorous, with a large intake of meat from hunted gazelles and impalas. Preferences are regionally dependent, coalitions of brothers will hunt larger prey such as wildebeest.

Mating and Parental care of Cheetahs

Cheetahs breed year-round. After 90 days gestation, cubs are usually born in litters of 3, and occasionally five or six. Many cubs will not survive adolescence. However, an exceptional few mothers in the wild have raised their cubs to adulthood. For example, in the Masai Mara, one female is the matriarch of over 75% of the cheetah population.

Cheetah cubs are active at two weeks old, but are still vulnerable and remain hidden until three months. At this age the mane of hair on their back and the rear of the neck diminishes, despite not being fully weaned, their mother allows them out of hiding although they remain with her for six to 18 months, to acquire hunting skills before independence.

Cheetah cubs (Acinonyx jubatus) are left behind by mom when she goes hunting. The cubs are much more fluffy than a mature cheetah. The fluff slowly becomes a mane of fur in adolescents and by adulthood the fur is an even length all over.
CC License, image by Bernard DuPont
Cheetah cubs (Acinonyx jubatus) are left behind by mom when she goes hunting. The cubs are much more fluffy than a mature cheetah. The fluff slowly becomes a mane of fur in adolescents and by adulthood the fur is an even length all over.

Who preys on Cheetahs?

Whilst not widely hunted by humans, cheetahs are targeted in central Africa and considered a pest to be killed in some parts of Southern Africa. Despite being a large predator, they are preyed upon by other animals. Notably, lions, hyenas and leopards have been observed preying on cubs. Adults will usually flee from predators. Lions and hyenas will challenge a cheetah for its kill instead of targeting the cheetah itself.

How long do Cheetahs live?

The average lifespan of cheetahs is six years. Females often live longer than males, though it is difficult to determine the age of males as they are nomadic.

A Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) jumping next to a waterhole in Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa,
Licensed from Shutterstock
A Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) jumping next to a waterhole in Kgalagadi transfrontier park, South Africa,

Impact of Cheetahs on the human economy

In Ancient Egypt the cheetah was domesticated to a certain extent. The cat’s sprinting speed and agility was exploited for hunting, but their lack of stamina resulted in the easy prevention of any escape attempts. Cheetahs were also used for hunting in India.

In parts of Southern Africa, the cheetah is considered a nuisance and often persecuted by livestock grazers and other farmers.

Conservation status and human impact on Cheetahs

According to the IUCN, cheetahs are vulnerable (2020). Not dissimilar to other wild species, land and habitat pressures apply to cheetahs, though the cheetahs’ lack of adaptability emphasizes the negative effect of these issues. Their hunting technique comprises more effort and has a lower success rate than other cats. As such, habitat stresses in hunting areas have an overwhelming impact on cheetahs compared to other predators.

Cheetah populations are genetically similar to one another, so disease is a potential threat. In the Masai Mara and Serengeti system, a handful of mothers are responsible for raising a majority of cubs to maturity. This lack of genetic variability across the population increases vulnerability to disease that they may not have natural immunity to.

A magnificent Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in full stride, racing across the Savannah. This image might leave you in awe for the unmatched speed and grace of the world's fastest land mammal.
Licensed from Shutterstock
A magnificent Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in full stride, racing across the Savannah. This image might leave you in awe for the unmatched speed and grace of the world’s fastest land mammal.

Other important information about Cheetahs

Cheetahs were originally considered to have split off from other cat species a long time ago, but recent genetic testing suggests that their closest relatives, the puma and the jaguarundi, shared a more recent ancestor than previously thought.

Cheetah in French, German, Spanish ...

Latin Name
Acinonyx jubatus
Alternative Names
Hunting Leopard
French Names
Guépard
German Names
Gepard
Spanish Names
Chita, Guepardo
Swahili Names
Duma

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