The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), which inhabits the Middle East and most areas of Africa except rainforests, has a brownish-orange coat with small, round black spots. Conspicuous "tear strips" run from beneath its eyes, across the cheeks to the corners of the mouth. However, those tiny dark spots are what really make the cheetah stand out. Their name, in fact, actually means "spotted one" in the Hindi language. Different from other cats, the cheetah has a loose and rangy build, small head, high-set eyes and small ears. Cheetah claws don't retract like a house cat's either, in part because it needs the extra traction during high-speed sprints. Similarly, cheetahs don't growl. They hiss or give a bird-like chirp instead, because they lack the vocal anatomy to roar. These distinctive characteristics are attributed to the fact that cheetahs evolved much earlier than their fellow cats -- arising from a cat-like mammal that lived about 4 million years ago.
Reproduction and Rearing:
Cheetah mothers typically have from one to six cubs, which are born blind and toothless. By five weeks old, however, their eyes are open and the young cats have developed a taste for meat. However, the cubs won't start hunting on their own until they are nearly two years old, at which point their mother leaves them. Once independent, brothers and sisters will go their separate ways as the family unit dissolves. As adults, females live relatively solitary lives, seeking out territories in which they raise their own families. Males, in contrast, sometimes hang together with brothers or other male cheetahs. They tend to forge these alliances for hunting and attracting mates.
Diet and Hunting:
The cheetah, the fastest land animal on earth, can sprint at speeds of about 60 to 70 miles per hour. Furthermore, it can accelerate to this pace in just a step or two. Its body is uniquely built for speed. Their small heads offer little wind resistance, while their exceptionally long legs allow them to take huge strides. During sprints, the cheetah spine acts like a giant spring -- storing energy that can be released in explosive surges. The cheetah also has an enlarged heart, set of lungs, and liver that help deliver bursts of oxygen and energy. Along with its sharp claws, specially ridged foot pads help to provide greater traction. Hence, it can both run hast and maneuver well. The cheetah has limited endurance (about a quarter of a mile), however, and the sprint quickly leads to near exhaustion. Consequently, the cheetah can only hunt effectively in open country where there is enough natural cover for stalking. Cheetahs begin by stalking prey for a few seconds or up to several hours. When the prey is within 100 feet, the chase begins. About half of all chases end with the prey being suffocated by a throat bite. Adult cheetahs eat an average of six pounds of meat per day, but they drink infrequently--once in every four to ten days. Its speed allows the cheetah to prey upon animals much larger than itself, but generally cheetahs prey on medium-sized animals such as gazelles and impala.
How long does it take a cheetah to reach top speed?
Estimates of the remaining population of cheetahs range from about 20,000 to 25,000, perhaps only half as many cheetahs as in 1960. Although cheetahs are widely protected, poaching and trade in skins continues. Loss of habitat due to human population growth in Africa also threatens the cheetah by making it increasingly difficult for the animal to hunt successfully. Organizations such as World Wildlife Fund are endeavoring to put a stop to the illegal traffic in cat skins as well as to create and maintain reserves to protect them and other endangered species.
Note: Some information has been excerpted from World Wildlife Fund and PBS.