Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)

jagluiperd [Afrikaans]; Gepard [German]; guepard [French]; duma, msongo [Swahili];  i;hlosi [isiNdebele] [isiXhosa]; ihlosi, ingulule [isiZulu]; lengau, lepg, nkw-'silo [Sepedi]; lengau [Sesotho] [Setswana]; dindingwe, ihlosi [Shona]; sinkankanka, lihlosi [siSwati]; ndloti, xinkankanka [Xitsongo]; didinngwe, dagaladzhie [Tshivenda]; linau [Lozi]; unqaba [Yei]; !Amb [Nama] [Damara]; shitona [Herero]; shinga [Ovambo]

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Deuterostomia > Chordata > Craniata > Vertebrata (vertebrates)  > Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates) > Teleostomi (teleost fish) > Osteichthyes (bony fish) > Class: Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish) > Stegocephalia (terrestrial vertebrates) > Reptiliomorpha > Amniota > Synapsida (mammal-like reptiles) > Therapsida > Theriodontia >  Cynodontia > Mammalia (mammals) > Placentalia (placental mammals) > Laurasiatheria > Ferungulata > Ferae > Carnivora > Family: Felidae (cats) > Subfamily: Acinonychinae

Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)
Cheetah, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ]
Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah) Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)
Cheetah. [photo Callie de Wet ] Cheetah, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Arno Meintjes ]

Hunts down prey (mainly antelope) by chasing it at high speed over short distances. Its running speed is such that it holds the record as the fastest land mammal, being able to run in excess of 70 km/h. Females hold territories and do all the work in rearing the young. Males are nomadic.

Identification

The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, referred to as the “greyhound of cats”. It resembles these dogs with its slender build, long legs and long tail. The head is rounded with a short muzzle. The coat dotted with solid black, round spots. A clear black line, the “tear-mark”, runs from the inner corner of the eye to the corner of the mouth. The long tail is black-ringed with a white tip. A short crest of erectile hair is situated on the back and sides.

The cheetah is the only member of the cat family that does not have fully retractable claws. The imprint of the claws can be clearly seen in their tracks.

Size

Body length 180 – 220 cm; Height at shoulder 80 cm ; weight range 40 -60 kg.

Dental formula

I C P M = 30

Distribution and habitat

Africa and the Middle East. Occur in open savanna and occasional light woodland.

In Asia cheetah used to be tamed and used for hunting, particularly the very fast black buck.

General behaviour

Cheetah are normally solitary or seen in small family groups consisting of a female and her young or a bachelor group of young males. Female cheetahs hold and defend territories from other females, but the males appear to be nomadic.

Hunting and food

Cheetahs are diurnal, but are usually active during the cooler parts of the day. The hunt involves stalking to within a short distance of the intended prey and then sprinting in for the kill. Although they can reach speeds in excess of 70k/h, they can only maintain top speed for a few hundred metres. Their hunting success is not particularly high with only about a third of all attempts resulting in a kill. Cheetahs are also often chased from their kills by other predators and scavengers, so they eat quickly after a kill. Typically cheetahs will seek a viewpoint, (a rock, tree, or mound) to scan the savanna for potential prey.

Food includes medium sized mammals, usually antelope. They also catch birds up to the size of ostrich.

Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)

Two young Cheetahs feeding on their Springbok prey, Mata Mata Road, Kruger National Park, South Africa. [photo Callie de Wet ]

Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)

Cheetah feeding on a carcass, Bloemfontein, South Africa. [photo Gerhard Theron ]

Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)

Cheetah chasing down a Springbok, Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa. [photo Coke Smith ]

Reproduction

The gestation period lasts 90-95 days. Litters usually consist of 3 cubs and the mother is solely responsible for raising them. She has to hunt to feed her family and also train the cubs in the skills of hunting once they are old enough. At this stage she will bring suitable prey back to her offspring and release it for them to catch again. Male cheetah are aggressive to cubs and juveniles and their mothers take great care to protect them from encountering this type of danger. For the first 6 weeks of their lives the cubs are hidden in dense plant cover, after this period they will follow their mother. 

Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah) Acinonyx jubatus (Cheetah)

Cheetah with cubs, Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa. [photos Trevor Hardaker ]

Life span

About 12 years; 17 years in captivity

Conservation

Cheetah are endangered throughout their range. This is a result of habitat destruction, elimination of their natural antelope prey by humans and direct persecution. It is thought that 5000 –15 000 cheetah may remain in Africa. As few as 200 may remain in the Middle East where it is critically endangered. Overall, its Red List status is classified as Vulnerable (click on link to IUCN below).

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Text by Denise Hamerton


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