I have focused on speed and been selective in presenting these cheetah facts. There are many pages about the cheetah on this site. Please use the custom search tool.
The cheetah derives its name from the Hindu word chita which means “spotted or sprinkled”. The scientific name of the cheetah, Acinonyx, is thought to have been derived from the Greek words akaina (thorn) and onyx (claw). This refers to the semi-unsheathed claw of the cheetah. The species name jubatus is from the Latin meaning “having a crest or mane”.
The cheetah is the world’s fastest animal on land but it’s top speed is often exaggerated. Around 69 mph is the absolute top speed and this can only be maintained for about 400 m because the cat becomes too hot due to the effort expended in maintaining that speed. They attain a speed of 75 km/h in just two seconds. This is awesome acceleration. They respiratory rate quickens from 60 up to 150 breaths per minute. The production of heat increases by more than 50 times. When the body temperature reaches 40.5°C cheetahs refuse to run and they store 90% of the heat they produce when sprinting which is much higher than, for instance, the African hunting dog which stores only about 20% of their heat when running.
The speed is derived from a very flexible frame, long leavers for legs and a deep chest to provide oxygen to the body. The cheetah has many adaptations in its anatomy to achieve the speed that it does. They have large thigh muscles. The tibia and fibula are tightly bound together which increases stability when running but decreases climbing ability. The cheetah’s clavicle is reduced in size and joined to the scapula by ligaments. There is no bony connection between the scapula and forelegs which frees the scapula to swing back and forth with each stride increasing the stride length. The stride is also increased by the “flexion and extension of the spine”. And 53 km/h a cheetah’s stride length is about 4.3 m which increases to 7 m at 90 km/h.
Her compressed body and narrow, fragile looking chest was built the speed; on her dainty feet she had hard pads like those of a dog and with her unsheathed claws she could take a firm hold on the ground to propel herself at lightning speed. – Desmond Varaday.
With each stride the cheetah covers about the same distance as a galloping horse. When accelerating it takes 3 1/2 strides per second. At this point the cheetah is travelling at about 25 m/s which is three times faster than the best human sprinter. Estimates of the cheetah’s top speed vary between 92 to 128 km/h but the most reliable measurement over a short distance is about 112 km/h (69mph).
One further anatomical aspect of the cheetah helps to grip the ground. The “longitudinal ridges on the hard, pointed pads of the feet function like cleats on a running shoe, providing traction and grip during fast turns”.
Although the cheetah is a fantastic sprinter and faster than any other animal and therefore any prey animal, their success in catching prey is not a foregone conclusion because antelope are adept at zigzagging which forces the cheetah to make rapid turns at high speed. The cheetah’s tail is used to maintain balance and speed. The tail is particularly long for this reason. The cheetah’s claws are shorter and straighter than those of other cats. The webbing between the digits is less pronounced than in other cats which allows the toes to be spread more widely which further aids with purchase on the ground when running quickly.
The cheetah is known for two black lines starting below the eyes and running down the sides of the nose. These must be to do with camouflage and/or preventing bright light reflecting into the cat’s eyes. Although the cheetah has a spotted coat, there are variations on this such as black (melanistic) cheetahs and white cheetahs have also been recorded. There is also the king cheetah which has a similar but different pattern of dark fur on its coat. The king cheetah is found in South Africa. It was originally described as a separate species but this was a wrong assessment. It is controlled by a single recessive gene. Experts believe that it is the result of a mutation of the tabby gene. In the wild they are found exclusively in Zimbabwe, Botswana and the Transvaal.
For 4000 years people have been associated with cheetahs. There is a long history of hunting with cheetahs and you will see them on leashes from 300 BC. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt gazelles, foxes and hares in Russia and Mongolia and the sport was popular during the Middle Ages in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Europe, the nobility used tame cheetahs to hunt for nearly 1000 years. All this came about because the cheetah is a retiring, large wild cat species, lending itself to being domesticated.
Training for hunting
Cheetah mothers train their young to hunt better than people do when they train adult cheetahs. Adult cheetahs are easier to tame and train for hunting than cubs because they’ve been trained by their mother. But if cubs are taken from their mother before they are trained and instead trained by people it is much harder and the training is much longer.
The cheetah’s distribution has been dramatically fragmented and reduced by human activity and despite its iconic status it is killed by farmers when they attack livestock and this habitat is being much reduced together with a reduction in prey animals because of ongoing bush meat eating by humans. The cheetah is inbred and its population size is decreasing.
The cheetah’s status in captivity is not good. There have been successes in breeding cheetahs but despite these successes cub mortality remains high in captivity. In one survey almost 34% of cubs between 1978 and 1980 failed to survive to 6 months of age. Deaths in captivity were due to cannibalism, congenital defects, hypothermia, maternal neglect, stillbirths and infections. I think that list of reasons for deaths is enlightening and gives us a true picture of the reality at zoos behind the glossy image.