Members of the cat family, cheetahs are the oldest species of big cat on the planet, having first evolved approximately four million years ago. Up until 20,000 years ago, cheetahs were found nearly throughout the world; cheetah fossils have been found from Texas and Nevada to China and Africa. After the last ice age ended (approximately 10,000 years ago), the cheetah populations were largely wiped out, resulting in the populations being limited to Asia and Africa. Today, cheetahs are primarily found in southern Africa, with small, isolated populations in eastern and northern Africa. There also is a small population (estimated to be between 60-100 individuals) living in Iran; these are the only surviving cheetahs in Asia.
Adult cheetahs have buff or tan fur with solid black spots (unlike the leopard’s rosette spots) over all but its white throat and belly. The cheetah’s tail is long and bushy, with four to six black rings and a white tuft at the end. Cheetah’s have relatively small heads with high-set, front-facing eyes. A black “tear mark” runs from the corner of each of the cheetah’s eyes down its muzzle, to the corners of its mouth; these tear-marks help to keep the sun out of the cheetah’s eyes and help it to see long distances. Adult cheetahs average around 28-32 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 80-140 pounds. Their body length averages about 48-56 inches, with another 28-32 inches of tail length. Adult males are slightly larger than adult females, but the size difference is not apparent enough to distinguish males from females at a distance.
Able to reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour while chasing their prey, cheetahs are the fastest land animals on earth. In fact, cheetahs are remarkably adapted for speed. Their small heads are filled with deep sinus cavities to ensure maximum oxygen intake. A deep chest containing a large, powerful heart and lungs ensures oxygen reaches all parts of the cheetah’s body during the chase. Long legs, non-retractable claws (unusual in the cat family), and tough paw pads give the cheetah quick acceleration and agility in fast turns. Even the cheetah’s long tail is perfectly adapted for speed – its length and weight act as a counter-balance when the cheetah is running, ensuring the cheetah doesn’t tumble and fall or lose balance while chasing nimble prey (such as gazelles) while at top speed.
While cheetahs are equipped for speed, they cannot maintain their top speed for more than a few hundred meters, so they rely stalking as close as possible to their prey before beginning the chase. Cheetahs typically prey on small to mid-sized gazelles and antelope, but also hunt ground-dwelling birds and small mammals. Unlike many other predators, cheetahs do not scavenge and their relatively light build means they are often chased away from their own kills by other predators such as leopards. Because of their reliance on sight and speed to hunt, cheetahs primarily are active during the day, unlike most other predators in their habitats.
Cheetahs have one of the most unusual social structures in the cat family. Adult male cheetahs live in loose social coalitions of two to three individuals, usually brothers. Adult female cheetahs are solitary unless they are raising a litter of cubs. A female cheetah and her cubs will remain nearly inseparable for the first 16 to 18 months of the cubs’ lives; after that time, the female cheetah will come into season and leave her cubs to find a mate. After their mother leaves, cheetah cubs will remain together for several more months, usually until the female cubs come into sexual maturity and the male cubs are chased off by more dominant breeding males.
Female cheetahs become sexually mature between 20 and 24-months-old. Their gestation period is 90 to 95 days, after which she will give birth to a litter of up to six cubs. At birth, cheetah cubs weigh between nine and 15 ounces and are blind and helpless. However, by four to 10 days of age, the cubs can see and move around their nesting area and by three weeks of age, they will have their teeth. To keep her cubs safe from predators, a female cheetah will move her cubs from den to den every few days.
As a solitary hunter, a female cheetah must leave her cubs alone for most of the day during the cubs first six weeks of life. This results in a high cub mortality rate (up to 90%). At six weeks of age, cheetah cubs will begin to follow their mother as she hunts for prey; the cubs will also start to eat meat at this age. Cheetah cubs grow rapidly, reaching half of their adult size at six months old. At eight months old, they begin to practice hunting and stalking prey, mostly through play with each other and with prey that is too big for them to catch.
The average lifespan of cheetahs in captivity is 8-12 years; studies on cheetah’s longevity in the wild have not yet been conducted.
For more information on cheetahs, visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund website.