The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a well known large cat that can be found in central Iran and Africa. It is the fastest extant land animal, capable of running at 50 – 80 mph (80 – 128 km/h). There are only four recognised subspecies.
More sociable than most cats, the cheetah has three main social groups, which include male coalitions, females and their cubs, and solitary males. Females live a nomadic life, searching for prey in large home territory, although, males are more slothful.
The males may establish much smaller territories in areas with access to females and plentiful prey. Its major preoccupation is hunting, with peaks during dawn and dusk.
In 2016, the population of cheetahs was estimated at 7,100 individuals in the wild. On the IUCN Red List, cheetahs are listed as Vulnerable.
|Subspecies||A. j. hecki, A. j. soemmeringii, A. j. jubatus, A. j. venaticus, A. j. raineyi|
Southeast African cheetah (A. j. jubatus) (A. j. raineyi)
It genetically metamorphosed from the Asiatic cheetah 67,000 to 32,000 years ago. As of 2016, the largest population of around 4,000 individuals is sparsely distributed in Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, and South Africa.
Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus)
This subspecies is native to central Iran and is the extant cheetah population in Asia. As of 2016, only 43 individuals were estimated to have survived in the three subpopulations scattered in Iran’s central plateau.
It is listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.
Northeast African cheetah (A. j. soemmeringii)
This subspecies native to the northern Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Chad in small and heavily fragmented populations; in 2016, the largest population of 238 individuals occurred in southeastern Chad and northern CAR.
It metamorphosed genetically from the southeast African cheetah 72,000 to 16,000 years ago.
Northwest African cheetah (A. j. hecki)
This subspecies occurs in Benin, Algeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso. In 2016, the largest population of 191 individuals occurred in Ahaggar, Adrar des Ifoghas, and Tassili n’Ajjer in northeastern Mali and south-central Algeria. It is listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.
The king cheetah is described as a rare mutated variety of cheetah with cream-coloured fur marked with three dark, wide stripes that extend from the neck to the tail and large blotchy spots.
Natives called the animal as nsuifisi, believing it to be a cross between a hyena and leopard.
Other reports indicate it could be a cross hybrid between a cheetah and leopard. In 1927, Pocock described the animal as a new species and was given the name Acinonyx rex (king cheetah).
Cheetahs are lightly built, spotted cats characterised by a small rounded head, black tear-like facial streaks, a short snout, long thin legs, a deep chest, and a long tail. It has a slender, canine-like form that is highly adapted for speed and it is distinct from the robust build of the big cats (genus Pathera).
Cheetahs typically reach 26 to 37 in (67 to 94 cm) at shoulder height, and the head and body length is between 3.6 and 4.9 ft (1.1 and 1.5 m). The weight can vary with health, age, sex, location, and subspecies. The adult typically ranges between 44 to 143 lb (20 to 65 kg).
Cubs born in captivity weigh around 18 oz (500 g), while those born in the wild tend to be smaller and weigh 5.3 to 10.6 oz (150 to 300 g) at birth. Cheetahs are known to be sexually dimorphic, with males heavier and larger than females. This trait is expressed in other cats but not to that extent.
Its coat is typically creamy white to tawny or pale buff (darker in the mid-back portion) and is covered by evenly spaced black spots.
The throat, chin, belly and underparts of the legs are white and devoid of markings. The coat is also covered with evenly spaced, oval or round solid black spots each measuring roughly 1.2 to 2.0 in (3 to 5 cm).
Each cheetah has a different pattern of spots which can be used to identify a particular individual. Aside from the visible spots, there are some other faint, irregular black marks on the coat.
Newly born cubs have an unclear pattern of spots on their coat which gives them a dark appearance. The hair is usually short and coarse, but the belly and chest are covered in soft fur.
The fur of king cheetah is said to be silky, according to some reports. There is a short, rough mane that covers at least 3.1 in (8 cm) along the shoulder and neck, although, this feature is more conspicuous in male. Melanistic cheetahs are rare and have been sighted in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Saharan cheetahs are known to have canine-like slim faces. Its ears are small, short and also rounded. The ears are tawny on the edges & at the base and marked with black patches on the back. The eyes have round pupils and are set high.
Compared to other felids, the cheetah whiskers are shorter and fewer but is inconspicuous and fine.
The pronounced malar stripes (tear streaks) are unique to cheetahs, which starts from the corner of the eyes and runs down to the mouth. Cheetah’s exceptionally long and muscular tail, with a busty white tuft at the end, measures 24 to 31 in (60 to 80 cm).
The cheetah is superficially alike to the leopard, but the leopard has rosettes on its coat instead of spots and lacks malar stripes (tear streaks). Also, cheetahs are known to be slightly taller than the leopard.
Hunting and diet
The cheetah is a well-known carnivore that hunts small to medium-sized prey weighing 44 – 132 lb (20 – 60), but mostly less than 88 lb (40 kg).
Its main prey is medium-sized ungulates such as Dama and Dorcas gazelles in Sahara, springbok in the arid savannahs to the south, impala in the southern and eastern African woodlands, and Thompson’s gazelle in the Serengeti.
It also preys on smaller animals like the common duiker. Cheetahs typically avoid larger ungulates, but nyala whose male weighs around 260 lb (120 kg) was found to be the major prey, according to a study in the Phinda Game Reserve.
Livestock is the major prey for cheetah in Namibia. The diet of the Asiatic cheetahs includes desert hare, chinkara, goitered gazelles, wild goats, and urial. In India, cheetahs primarily prey on blackbuck.
Hunting success and prey preferences vary with the sex, number, age of cheetahs involved in the vigilance of the prey and also the hunting. The cheetah will typically stalk its prey to within 200 – 230 ft (60 – 70 m), charge towards it, trip it during the chase and bite its neck to suffocate it to death.
Cheetahs are called diurnal animal because they are active mainly during the daytime. Cheetahs have the ability to decelerate dramatically towards the end of the hunt, slowing down from 58 mph (93 km/h) to 14 mph (23 km/h) in just three strides and can easily flow any twists and turn made by the prey as it tries to escape.
A bite on the snout (and sometimes on the skull) or nape of the neck suffices to kill smaller prey. Cheetahs are known to have an average hunting success rate of 25 to 40%, though it may be higher for smaller and vulnerable prey.
Cheetahs are known to consume large quantities of food occasionally. At Etosha National Park in Namibia, a cheetah was found to consume as much as 22 lb (10 kilograms) within two hours. However, on an average, a cheetah consumes around 8.8 lb (4 kg) of meat.
Life cycle and reproduction
Cheetahs are known to induce their ovulation and can breed all through the year. At the age of 2 – 3 years, females can have their first litter. Females are polyestrous, and the oestrus (heat) cycle can last for 12 days on an average, but it varies from three days to three months.
During mating, certain sounds like purr, chirp, or yelp can be heard. After copulation, the pair ignores each other but may meet again to copulate a few more times. Copulation may occur 3 – 5 times daily for 2 – 3 days.
After three months of gestation, a litter of 1 – 8 cubs is born (though 3 – 4 cubs are more common). Births take place at 20 to 25 minutes intervals in a sheltered place. The cubs are born with their eyes shut, but they gain their sight after 11 days. Newborn cubs may make soft churring noise and spit a lot. They may begin to walk by two weeks.
Their shoulders, nape, and back are thickly covered with long bluish grey hair, called a mantle, which gives a mohawk impression. The mantle shed as the cheetah grows older. The cubs begin to roam outside the lair at two months of age, following their mother wherever she goes.
Cheetah cubs are vulnerable to predation by other large carnivores such as lions and hyenas. The mother begins to feed the cubs with solid food and also licks them after their meal. The mother begins to wean the cubs at 4 – 6 months. Cubs’ behaviour includes crouching, chasing, wrestling, and pouncing.
Cubs as young as 6 months may capture small prey like young gazelles and hares, although they have to wait till the age of 15 months to make a successful kill on their own. They become independent at the age of 20 months, and by then, the mother might have conceived again.
Males move farther away from their mothers than females. The life a cheetah in the wild is 10 – 12 years, while in captivity, they are known to live up to 17 – 20 years.
Cheetahs in central, southern, eastern Africa inhabit arid mountain ranges and valleys in Sahara. Cheetahs in southern and eastern Africa can be found in savannahs in the Serengeti, and other cheetahs can be found on hilly terrain in Iran.
They prefer high mountains to desert surroundings. Cheetahs are threatened by several factors such as poaching, habitat loss, conflict with humans, and high susceptibility to diseases.