The cheetah is the fastest land animal on the planet. A cheetah can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour) in just three seconds, leaving most cars in the dust. At high speeds, these large cats are nimble and can make fast and unexpected turns in search of prey.
Cheetahs use their keen eyesight to scan their grassland environment for signs of prey, particularly antelope and hares, before unleashing their speed. This large cat is a daytime hunter with stealthy movement and a distinctive spotted coat that helps it to blend in well with tall, dry grasses.
A cheetah will run after its prey when the time is right and attempt to knock it down. The hunter expends a lot of energy in such chases, which are normally over in less than a minute. If the cheetah is good, it will always drag its kill to a shady hiding spot to protect it from opportunistic animals who might snatch a kill before the cheetah can eat it. Cheetahs only want a drink every three to four days.
Female cheetahs have three cubs on average and stay with them for one and a half to two years. Young cubs spend their first year learning from their mother and playing games to practice hunting strategies. Male cheetahs live in small groups or alone, or with their littermates.
Eastern and southwestern Africa are home to the majority of wild cheetahs. Only about 12,000 of these large cats remain, and those that do are under threat as the wide-open grasslands they prefer are disappearing due to human settlement.
The cheetah has a wide chest and a narrow waist. The cheetah’s coarse, short fur is tan with circular black spots ranging in size from 2 to 3 cm (0.79 to 1.2 in), giving it some camouflage when hunting. The white underside of the animal is spotless, but the tail has spots that converge to form four to six dark rings at the top. A bushy white tuft is normally found at the end of the tail. The cheetah has a tiny head and eyes that are set high. The black “tear marks” that extend from the corner of its eyes down the sides of its nose and through its mouth keep sunlight out of its eyes and help in hunting and long-range vision. Its body, despite its ability to achieve high speeds, is incapable of long-distance running. It’s a sprinter, after all.
The adult cheetah weighs between 36 and 65 kilograms (79 to 140 lb). Its total body length ranges from 45 to 53 cm (115 to 135 in), with a tail that can reach 84 cm (33 in). Cheetahs range in height from 67 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) at the shoulder. Males are slightly larger and have slightly larger heads than females, but there is little difference in cheetah sizes, making it difficult to tell males and females apart based on appearance alone. The cheetah has a shorter body than a leopard of comparable height, but it has a longer tail and is taller (it measures around 90 cm (35 in) tall), giving it a more streamlined appearance.
Cheetahs with bigger, blotchy, fused spots are known as “king cheetahs,” and they have an unusual fur pattern mutation. It was once considered a distinct subspecies, but it is actually a mutation of the African cheetah. While the “king cheetah” has only been seen a few times in the wild, it has been bred in captivity.
The cheetah’s paws have semi-retractable claws, which are only found in three other cat species: the fishing cat, the flat-headed cat, and the Iriomote cat. These claws provide extra grip in the cheetah’s high-speed pursuits. The ligament arrangement of a cheetah’s claws is similar to that of other cats; it simply lacks the sheath of skin and fur seen on other cats, so the claws, with the exception of the dewclaw, are still visible. The dewclaw of a cat is significantly shorter and straighter than that of other cats.
Cheetahs are a critically endangered species. It is the least adaptable of all the large cats when it comes to new environments. It has always been difficult to breed animals in captivity, but a few zoos have recently succeeded. The cheetah, which was once commonly hunted for its fur, is now threatened by habitat and prey loss.