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The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) 

The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) : is a large cat native to Africa and it’s known as the fastest land animal, estimated to be capable of running at 80 to 128 kilometers per hour (50 to 80 mph) with the fastest reliably recorded speeds being 93 and 98 kilometers per hour (58 and 61 mph). They live in three main social groups; females and their cubs, male “coalitions” and solitary males. While females lead a nomadic life searching for prey in large home ranges, males are more sedentary and may instead establish much smaller territories in areas with plentiful prey and access to females. These big cats are active mainly during the day, with peaks during dawn and dusk.

 

Physical characteristics

Size

Adult cheetah males are typically larger than females. The body length of cheetah ranges from 112 to 150 cm (3.93-4.92 ft), tail lengths are between 60 to 80 cm (2-2.62 ft) and the height at the shoulder ranges from 67 to 94 cm (2.2-3.1 ft). Their weights average from 21 to 72 kilograms (46-158 lb.), with the average male larger than the average female.

Eyes

Cheetahs have small, thin-boned skull with a relatively flat face and reduced muzzle size; these adaptations allow their large eyes to be positioned for maximum binocular vision. There is a high concentration of nerve cells leading to the optic nerve which allows cheetahs to detect prey in open habitats that move against the horizon. A nictitating membrane further shields and protects the eyes during fast sprints.

Paws

The cheetahs have paws that are narrower than other larger felids, resembling the paws of dogs rather than cats. They have claws that are blunt, slightly curved and only semi retractable. The claws are like running spikes, used to increase traction while pursuing prey. Ridges running along the footpads act like car hire treads for additional traction.

Tail

The tail of the cheetah can measure 66 to 84 cm (26-33 in), which is about two-thirds of its body length. During fast sprints, a cheetah’s paws have minimal contact with the ground. At such times, a cheetah’s tail stretches out and acts as a counter balance during sharp turns. The flattened tip of the tail also acts like a rudder to guide directions.

Head

Cheetahs have relatively small heads, small ears and high set eyes. Rapid acceleration requires a cheetah to have highly oxygen intake adaptations including enlarged nostrils and extensive air-filled sinuses. While running, a cheetah’s repertory system allows it to go from a normal rate of 60 breaths per minute to 150 breaths per minute. Less developed whiskers around the face suggest that cheetahs are not as active hunting at night compared to other felids.

Dentition

In a tradeoff for having various adaptations needed for rapid acceleration to pursue prey, such as a reduced muzzle and small skull size. Cheetahs have weak jaws and smaller canine teeth compared to other large cats and this leaves cheetahs vulnerable when it comes to defending captured prey from other larger predators.

Coloration

Cheetahs have an upper coat of fur that is tawny, pale buff or grayish white, with underparts that are paler and whiter. Black spots are set close together on the pelage with a series of black rings around the last one-third of the tail. Black tear markings under the eyes are thought to protect against the sun’s glare and to help focus better attention on prey. Cheetah kittens have fur colored in a way that is opposite normal countershading, in theory to mimic the coloration of a honey badger.

Habitat

Cheetahs appear to be less selective in terms of habitat choice than other felids and inhabit a variety of ecosystem; areas with greater availability of prey, good visibility and minimal chances of encountering larger predators are preferred. They seldom occur in tropical forests and have been reported at elevations as high as 4,000m (13‚000 ft). An open area with some cover such as diffused bushes; is probably ideal for the cheetah because it needs to stalk and pursue its prey over a distance. This also minimizes the risk of encountering larger carnivores. Unlike other big cats, the cheetah tends to occur in low densities typically between 0.3 and 3.0 adults per 100 square kilometers.

Built for speed

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal and Africa’s most endangered big cat. Uniquely adapted for speed, the cheetah is capable of reaching speeds greater than 110 kilometers per hour in just over 3 seconds. At top speed, their stride is 7 meters long. The cheetah’s unique body structure; semi-retractable claws, flexible spine, long legs and tail allow it to achieve the unbelievable top speed of 100 kilometers per hour (70 mph). Its body is narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs. Specialized muscles allow for a greater swing to the limbs increasing acceleration. Cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded than other cats and they function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The shorter blunt claws, which are considered semi-retractable, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.  

Flexible and fast

The flexibility of the cheetah’s spine is unique. The cheetah’s long muscular tail works like a rudder, stabilizing and acting as a counter balance to its body weight. Swinging the tail back and forth continually adjusting to the movement of prey allows for sudden sharp turns during high-speed chases. The cheetah’s shoulder blade does not attach to the collar bone thus allowing the shoulders to move freely. The hips pivot to allow the rear legs to stretch far apart when the body is fully extended. The hip and the shoulder extension allow for a large range of extension during running thus making both its exceptional stride length. The length between their steps is 6 to 7 meters (21 ft) and four strides are completed per second. There are two times in one stride when the cheetah’s body is completely off the ground; once when all four legs are extended and once when all four legs are bunched under the body.

Behaviors

Cheetahs are solitary animals and males have been seen living in coalitions, where they appear extremely tolerant of close proximity to other males. The related members of the coalition will even take part in play and physical contact such as grooming, whereas the unrelated males will generally stick to themselves while remaining in the coalition. Like all females, there are some males who stick to themselves who do not belong to the coalition. They never stay in one place for long and are referred to as nomads. At times, a male will company a female for a short while after mating, but most often the female is alone with the cubs. Mothers spend a long time teaching their young ones how to hunt. Small live antelopes are brought back to cheetah cubs so they can learn to chase and catch them. 

Diet

These cats mostly prey on small antelopes like the Thomson’s gazelles and the impalas but also hunt small mammals and birds. It gets close to the prey as possible then in a burst of speed, it tries to outrun its quarry. These big cats are the fastest of all land mammals and this is because they can run as fast as 95 to 120 kilometers per hour (60-75 mph). Once the cat closes in, it knocks the prey to the ground with its paw and suffocates the animal with a bite to the neck. Once it has made a kill, it eats quickly and keeps an eye out for scavengers; lions, hyenas, vultures, leopards, jackals among others who might steal from this timid predator. Unfortunately, the cheetah’s speed can’t be maintained for more than a few hundred meters before the individual overheats and that’s why the majority of hunts always result in failure.

Mating

Female cheetahs lead solitary lives unless accompanied by their cubs. Unlike males that prefer to live in a set territory with their coalition, females move within home ranges that overlap multiple male group territories. The home ranges for the female cheetahs depend on the distribution of prey; if prey is roaming and widespread, females will have larger ranges. Estrus in female cheetahs is not predictable and this is one of the reasons why it is difficult to bread cheetahs in captivity. Mating receptivity depends on environmental factors that researchers have found are triggered by the proximity of males and their scent markings. Estrus lasts up to 14 days and females will mate with multiple males during this period. Male cheetahs that encounter a female in estrus will stay with her and mate up to three days and at intervals throughout the day. When it comes to mating, there are no dominant males within the coalition that claim exclusive access to females so, all males within a coalition will mate.

 

Hunting

Cheetahs are visual hunters. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs are diurnal; they hunt in early morning and late afternoon.  They climb termite mounds to get an optimal vantage point for spotting prey against the horizon. The hunt has got several components; prey detection, the chase, stalking, tripping and killing by means of a suffocation bite to the throat.

Reproduction and development

Sexual maturity occurs at 18 to 23 months and the gestation period is about 3 months and the average litter size is 6 cubs. While there is no definitive breeding season, a majority of births occur during the wet season. Births occurring during this time of the year coincide with the gazelle birth season, increasing food resources for the cheetah. Cubs are smoky-grey in color with long hair also known as a mantle, running along their backs. They are about 12 inches (30 centimeters) long and weigh 9 to 12 ounces (400 grams) on average at birth. Cub mortality is high in both the wild and captivity and on average 30 percent of all cubs born in human care die within one month of birth, and in Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), about 90 percent die before reaching three months of age. At six weeks, the young are strong enough to follow the hunt and when they are about six months older, the mother will capture live prey for them to practice killing.

Vocalizations

Unlike other big cats, cheetahs don’t roar but they growl when facing danger and they vocalize with sounds more equivalent to a high-pitched chirp or bubble and they bark when communicating with each other. The cheetah can also purr while both inhaling and exhaling.

Facts about Cheetahs

Tear Marks

Cheetahs have built-in sun glare protection around their eyes. The cheetah’s tear marks run from the inside corners of their eyes down to the outside edges of their mouth. These marks help reflect the glare of the sun when they are hunting during the day. These marks also work like the sights on a rifle to help the cheetah aim and stay focused on their prey when they are hunting.

Tail like a rudder

The cheetah has a long muscular tail that has a flat shape which almost functions like a rudder on a boat because they use it to help control their steering and keep their balance when running very fast.

Spotted skin

The cheetah’s fur is covered in solid black spots, and so is their skin! The black fur actually grows out of the black spots on their skin.

Cleat feet

The cheetah has got semi non-retractable claws like the dog claws that gives it a lot of traction when running. The pads of most cat paws are soft but the cheetah’s pads are hard kind like rubber on a tire. This also helps them grip the ground when they are running so fast.

Funny haircut

Cheetah cubs have long tall hair that runs from their neck all the way down to the base of their tail known as the mantle. The mantle makes a cheetah cub look like a honey badger and makes them blend into the tall grass which helps keep them safe from threats like hyenas and lions.

Feeding

Cheetahs are carnivores and feed mostly on smaller antelopes like steenbok, springbok, Thomson’s gazelle, impalas, duikers among others. They usually chase down their prey and then bite its throat, killing it by cutting off its air supply or call it suffocation.

Where are cheetahs found?

Cheetahs are confined mostly to dry open grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa and in Uganda, you can find them in Kidepo valley national park and Pian Upe wildlife reserve while on your safari.

 

 

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