With aerodynamic bodies, long legs and blunt, semi-retractable claws, the Cheetah is one of the world’s most-recognizable cats with its distinguished black tear stained face, known as the fastest land animal that can sprint at 80 to 128 km per hour. However, after a chase with a breathtaking speed, it needs about 30 minutes to catch its breath before eating. The cheetah earned its name from the Hindi word Chitra, which stands for spotted, as it has black spots scattered across its tawny to creamy white or pale buff coat. Although its chin, throat and underparts of the legs and the belly are white and devoid of markings, the rest of its body is covered with around 2,000 evenly spaced, oval or round solid black spots. While each cheetah has a distinct pattern of spots, apart from those prominent black spots, it also has other faint irregular black marks on the coat.
Nevertheless, its spotted coat helps it blend into the environment when resting or stealthily following prey or hiding from predators. Strangely, almost like a human fingerprint, these markings are unique and vary from one to another.
Unlike the tigers and lions, who belong to the Panthera genus, the Cheetahs belong to the only living species of the Acinonyx genus within the cat family.The body of the cheetah, the lanky and athletic big cat, is built for speed. Its long legs help it to race fast and move over great distances, while its flexible spine allows it to stretch and cover much ground on each stride. The long, muscular and flat tail of the cheetah functions almost like the rudder of a boat and help it to stay balanced and change direction quickly. It can change direction abruptly, even while on run with great speed. Its semi-retractable claws act like cleats, helping to gain traction when running and its hard paw pads function like rubber on a tire. Apart from that, its internal organs, the liver, lungs, bronchi, nasal passages, heart and adrenal glands are comparatively larger than the other big cats, which allow its intense physiological activity. Incredibly, a cheetah takes about 31 to 32 strides per second and 60 to 150 breaths per minute during a chase.
Adult cheetahs have a long, slender body measuring around 4 feet (1.21 m) and around 5 feet (1.52 m) from head to rump with a long tail of about 3 feet (0.91 m), that generally ends in a white tuft. Generally, their weight ranges from 34 to 64 kg, males being slightly larger than females, but it can vary with age, health and location. Their head is smaller and more rounded, compared to other big cats, the ears are small, short and rounded; tawny at the base and on the edges and marked with black patches on the back.
While the eyes are set high and have round pupils, the pronounced tear streaks, unique to the cheetah, originate from the corners of the eyes and run down the nose to the mouth. Strangely, like other big cats, the cheetahs cannot roar, but they can growl and bark, purr and bleak, hiss and chirp.
Cheetahs thrive in areas with vast expanses of grasslands, savannah, forest land and mountainous terrain, where prey is abundant. However, they inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including the dry, open country, as well as areas of dense vegetation and rocky upland terrain. Although historically ranging throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa and extending into the Middle East and to Central India, over the years they have become extinct in several countries. Even, the Asiatic cheetah, known to survive in Iran, is also critically endangered. They are now most prevalent in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa and Namibia and Botswana in Southern Africa.
Unlike most of the carnivores, cheetahs are active mainly during the day, hunting in the daybreak and dusk and when not actively hunting, they prefer to sleep and rest in tall grasses, under trees, or on rocky outposts. As they mainly depend on sight more than smell, they tend to scan the area from a hillock or the top of a termite mound. They usually creep within 300 feet (91 m) of the victim before the final acceleration that lasts about 20 seconds. A cheetah eats a variety of small animals, including game birds, rabbits, springbok, steenbok, young warthogs, small antelopes and larger antelopes.
Unlike the other big cats, the cheetahs suffocate their prey by clamping down on the animal’s throat to choke its windpipe with their strong jaws, instead of going for the throat of the victim, as their teeth are short compared to other big cats. Generally, the cheetah does not waste much time to devour its prey after the kill, as it is scarred to be bullied away from the catch by lions, hyenas and sometimes groups of vultures. They even do not tend to carry and hide the kill, as it is often stolen by lions, hyenas and jackals.
The male cheetahs typically live in small groups, known as coalitions and hunt together for life and occupy an area that may encompass several female home ranges. But the females tend to lead a solitary life or live with the cubs in undefended home ranges, measuring from 322 to 370 square miles, which is a much larger area compared to males. Although young females often stay with their mothers for life, young males, after attaining sexual maturity at around the age of two, leave their mother's range to live elsewhere independently. Nevertheless, the size of male territories is much smaller than the female home ranges and is usually 5 to 10 square miles, which may extend up to 50 square miles.
Although there is no definitive breeding season for the cheetahs, urinating males become more pronounced when a female in their vicinity comes into oestrus. Sometimes males in the same coalition fight against one another to secure access to the female. Mating begins before any courtship behaviour, as the male approaches the female and the female lies down on the ground. The pair copulates three to five times a day for the next two to three days, before they part away. But after that, the female can also mate with different males.
The normal gestation period of a cheetah is there months, after which a litter of commonly three to four cubs is born, usually in a remote and secluded spot hidden by tall grass or dense vegetation, as the cheetah cubs are highly vulnerable to several predators during the first few weeks of their life. The eyes of the cubs are shut at birth, which takes 4 to 11 days to open, while their nape, shoulders and back are thickly covered with long blackish grey hair, called a mantle. When the cubs reach about 6 months old, the mother trains them to hunt and to avoid predators, but leaves them when they are 16 to 24 months old. The cheetah lives about 7 years in the wild, while in captivity they generally live from 8 to 12 years.