CHEETAH:   

SPOTTED SPRINTERS


(C) A. Lopez

Of all the big cats, this one has sacrificed much for its physical capabilities.  Often it cannot defend its well earned meals from Hyenas.  It also cannot drag its food up trees to protect it as well.   Its jaws are not powerful enough to break its victim's neck or crush its skull like other big cats.  It has to "suffocate" its prey.  Its slender build does not make it a formidable opponent against the leopard or lion.  It often loses its young to these more powerful African carnivores.  

SOCIAL STRUCTURE:


Females live alone unless they are raising cubs. They have huge home ranges due to the fact they follow the migratory routes of the Thomson's gazelles.  A female may remain in one area for several weeks until hunting becomes poor and then she may move a few kilometers to an area with more prey.  The female's ranges are too large to be defended against other females and there is extensive range overlap between them.  Although this is true, females tend to show avoidance behavior with each other even if two mothers are in the same area.  A female will not defend the range she is currently in  from other cheetahs even though she marks it with her urine and feces.  Each female will use different areas of her domain depending on the time of the year and will return annually.  At certain times of the year, many of them meet in areas where the concentration of prey is very high and hunting conditions favorable.  These areas are very attractive to males.  Males either live alone or in permanent groups of two, three, or occasionally four.  These "coalitions" usually last a lifetime.  In most cases, these groups are made up of sibling males of the same litter with an unrelated male if the coalitions are bigger.  Some males are nomads.  There are some males that are territorial and some that are nomadic.  All males pay attention to smell and to the markings left on termite hills, rocks, or tree trunks by other cheetahs.  These markings are only made by the territorial males using urine and feces.  Those that are the most territorial, are those that live in coalitions for it is easier to get and hold onto territory by doing this.   If a resident male comes upon a male intruder, violent clashes occur and many are killed or hurt this way.  A nomadic male will quickly move in the opposite direction if he picks up the scent mark of a resident male.  Amongst coalitions, there is no dominant male and they share their kills and females equally.

As mentioned earlier, cheetahs are unable to defend their kills with force.  It is not equipped to do so and it saves itself by giving it up to other predators.  If undisturbed, it rapidly tears away pieces of meat and bolts down small mouthfuls.  If disturbed, it will abandon its meal and never return. 

        

HABITAT / DISTRIBUTION:

 Its running and hunting style keeps it to open areas where there is enough cover for stalking.  It is found from semi desert to open grassland to thick bush.  It is found in  Africa and the Middle East.

 

SIZE / APPEARANCE:

Physically, cheetahs have 3 strong distinguishing features: spots, facial tear lines and a thin, graceful body.   It is believed the purpose of the tear line is a combination of glare reduction and the enhancement of the animal's vicious posing  when snarling (a form of war paint).

In physique, this resembles more dog-like then cat.  Its gaunt look, deep chest, and narrow waist are reminiscent of a greyhound.  Its long legs end in blunt claws.  Their femur bones are longer then those of other big cats.  Its spine is elongated and extremely flexible, arching dramatically as the cat runs, thus contracting and expanding almost like a powerful spring to provide the cat a greater reach each stride. Its short claws are good for traction and for matching the sudden changes in direction of a gazelle running for its life.  Its heart, lungs, and nasal openings are all large relative to its size This is necessary to supply instantly the oxygen and energy for acceleration in a short, wild chase.  The long tail gives it balance in any kind of maneuver.

It has been said that cheetahs have non-retractable claws.  This is not true.  Their claws have very little sheaths so they appear to remain protracted but they can be withdrawn to a small degree. 

Cheetahs do climb.  It is not uncommon to see cheetahs of all ages on the lower branches of sturdy trees.  They also will leap onto any tall object in the landscape such as a rock or mound of earth.  This probably is a game spotting technique particularly in a flat landscape.  

(C) A. Lopez  10/10

It is very lightweight as compared to the other big cats.  Adults weigh from 86 to 143 pounds.  It has a small head, short muzzle, high set eyes, wide nostrils, and small rounded ears.  Its body is built like a sprinter's.  It has a slim but muscled frame.  The fur is course and short.  It is tawny yellow and marked with round black spots.  Black cheetahs and white cheetahs have been reported.  There has even been a cheetah reported that was white with very light grey (almost blue) spots.  There has also been a cheetah reported that hardly had any spots at all.  The most famous of all cheetah natural variation is the "King Cheetah."  In place of spots, it has bold, unbroken stripes running the length of its spine; like ink blots also raised above the base fur, and spread over legs, flanks, and chest.  Its tail is both striped and ringed and has silkier and longer fur.

Cheetahs make a full range of cat noises like mews, meows, hisses, growls, purrs and a high-pitched birdlike "chirp" and "chirr."  Hisses are usually accompanied by spitting and growling and a raising of the front paws simultaneously followed by sharp stamping of the ground.  This is intended to frighten off a possible predator or enemy.

 

HUNTING STYLE / DIET:

 Getting measurements of precise speed has been difficult but it is generally thought that their maximum speed can reach up to 65 mph.  Chases last an average of 20 seconds and rarely for a minute.  They can only run in short bursts (about 200-450 yards).  Having greater spinal flexion and a body built for sprinting has given this cat their celebrated speed.  They prey on animals weighing from 44 to 110 pounds.  These include gazelles, impalas, wildebeest calves, and hares.  Cheetahs advance slowly in the direction of a herd of antelope.  At this point, there is no attempt to hide.  When the antelopes run away, the cheetah chooses its victim from the herd.  Sometimes it will hunt without letting itself be seen and halting when the antelopes stop grazing.   This may last a long time.  Once the victim has been chosen, the cheetah does not change its mind.  It only sets off on the attack after having gotten close enough to its target.  The cheetah has to stop to catch its breath after 450 yards at breakneck speed.  Cheetahs can easily follow a zigzagging animal because their claws give them a strong grip on the ground and their long tail, which acts as a counterbalance, provides them with greater stability during the changes of direction.  They are considered good hunters and are successful in about half of their chases.  Those that are in a coalition may have significantly increased chances of success and can take down larger prey (gnu) but this is hard to prove.  It seems that they don't work in coordination to kill their prey.  One may actually do the killing and the others just follow to partake in the meal.  

 

REPRODUCTION / CUBS:


(C) Vermin Moor

 

Males often remain with females for two days if they are breeding.  If a coalition of males find a female, there may be mild aggression among them (the males may also cause the female some anxiety because they will surround her and keep her captive and check to see if she is in season).  This is nothing compared to fights between coalitions and male intruders.

After a gestation period of 90-95 days, a female gives birth to as many as 9 cubs but seldom more then 3 or 4 survive.  They are born blind in lairs situated among boulders, tall vegetation, or a marsh. Their eyes open at the start of the second week.  During the first week, the mother will move them from one hiding place to another.  This prevents predators from finding them from the scents that give away their presence and any traces left in the undergrowth.  Sadly, the mortality among cubs is very high especially within the first two months of their lives.  Causes of their mortality are predation, grassfires, disease, exposure, and infanticide by male cheetahs.  Of all of these, predation takes the most toll.  Lions, spotted hyenas, jackals, and birds of prey will kill them if they find them.  A mother may be gone for up to 48 hours or more while hunting.  What seems to help them is their natal coat.  It is light gray and wooly on the cub's back and black on its belly. The cubs start  to lose this coat at 2 months and will completely lose it by age two.  Its main function seems to be for camouflage.  It also seems to serve as protection against the rain and sun.  I have also read that a very young cheetah almost looks like a honey badger.  Honey badgers are aggressive animals and it is thought that the coloring of a cheetah cub mimics them so that some predators would leave them alone.....Surviving cubs are brought out of their den at 4 to 5 weeks and they accompany their mother from then on.  They are extremely playful with each other during this time.  This helps them practice their hunting skills.  At about four months, the mother brings home live prey (usually a baby gazelle) to her cubs.  They further practice their hunting skills by chasing it, etc.  This way, the cubs soon learn to kill for themselves.  The mother suddenly leaves them at 15 to 18 months but they are still inexperienced hunters.  Because of this, the cubs stay together for about 6 months after leaving their mother.  After this, the females leave to go off on their own and the brothers stay together for life.  

 

THE PERIL OF THE CHEETAH:

(C) Arthur Emmrich

Their main threat in Africa seems to be habitat destruction.  This is caused by the spread of agriculture into areas where their prey used to be found.  They are also legally hunted as vermin in  Namibia and hunting has started again of the cheetah in Zimbabwe.  In captivity, they breed poorly.  Fortunately, there have been some successful  breeding programs but the challenges are still there and they remain classified as being endangered.  Another  cause of concern is that all cheetahs are descended from a handful of survivors of a global extinction that occurred during the last Ice Age (10,000 years ago).  Some feel that this number is too high. There may have been as few as two cheetahs that may have survived the last ice age. This caused extensive inbreeding among the sole survivors.  They have very low genetic diversity.  Cheetahs are so similar to each other in genetic makeup that this causes problems for this species.  Although true, this doesn't spell doom for them.  They are survivors and although their future may lay in our hands, our technological advances may even help this species thrive so that our future generations may marvel at and enjoy them.   

As a species, the cheetah is not aggressive but preferring to back off in the face of an attack.  Because of this, they are always open to predation by larger carnivores (lions, etc).  On the other hand, both wild and captive-born cheetahs have earned the reputation of cats with gentle personalities.  This gentle nature made it possible for man to train cheetahs for use in hunting in past times (especially in India).   The ancient Egyptians first used them but they were also used by the Persians and the Mongolians.  They used them in the art of hunting called "falconry".  The Persian Empire had entire packs of perfectly trained cheetahs.  Servants were needed for their upkeep.  Some European sovereigns also wanted them and used them as well.  Hunting with cheetahs normally took place on horseback (European) and the cheetah sat comfortably in the saddle behind the knight chained.  He was also blindfolded.  When a gazelle was spotted, the blindfold was taken off and it was pointed to the direction to where the cheetah was supposed to attack.  The cheetah got to an opportune distance and then killed the gazelle with great speed.

 

RESOURCES I HAVE USED AND ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED AND ACKNOWLEDGED.  THIS IS A NONPROFIT EDUCATIONAL SITE ONLY.   TEXT IS COPYRIGHT MATERIAL

Lumpkin, Dr Susan and Seidensticker, Dr John.  1991. Great Cats of the World Majestic Creatures of the Wild. Rodale Press. Pa.  Pgs 31, 138,  140, 141, and 142.

Bauer, Edwin A. 2003. The Last Big Cats. Voyageur Press, Inc., MN.

The Howard Buffet Foundation. 2003. Spots Before Your Eyes Cheetahs of Africa. BioImages, IL. Pages 27, 32, & 54.

Denis-Huot, Christine and Michael. 2006. The Lords of the Savannah. White Star Publishers, Italy.  Pgs 22, 78, 81, 106, 107, 158, 159, & 199.


(C) John White


 
(C) Jinsuk Kim

 


(C) A. Lopez

 

 

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