The other day someone asked if I had written about the cheetah on this blog. I was sure I had, but thorough searches of my blog revealed that I had not, in fact, ever blogged about cheetahs. This is a terrible crime, and so I will remedy it immediately.

The original range of cheetahs included almost all of Africa, the Middle East, and India. Today this area is considerably reduced, with large cheetah populations occurring only in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Namibia. The only remaining asiatic population exists in Iran, and only has about 50 reproducing cheetahs. Cheetahs favour open habitats, such as savannah or desert.

Most of you are familiar with what cheetahs look like: big, slender cats with fun spots covering yellow fur. They reach lengths of 112 to 150 cm, not including the tail. They weigh between 21 to 72 kg, with males being larger than females.

They are such gorgeous animals. Image by Whipsnade Zoo, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every bit of the cheetah is designed for speed. They are the fastest land animals in the world, and can sprint at speeds of 80 to 112 km/h for short periods of time. The black tear marks under cheetahs’ eyes keep sunlight out of their eyes  (much like the marks football players wear), something that’s very important when they’re running at high speeds. They have enlarged nostrils, which allows cheetahs to intake more oxygen into their big hearts and lungs, providing enough energy for sprinting.

Cheetahs also cannot fully retract their claws, an adaptation that allows them to grip the ground while running. They have a flexible spine that allows them to stretch their legs out, coving up to 7m per stride. While their intense speed is useful, cheetahs also rely on their acceleration and agility to catch prey. Their powerful muscles can get a cheetah from 0 to 75 km/h in two seconds. Their long tails act as rudders, allowing cheetahs to make amazing turns at high speed.

Despite their wealth of adaptations that let cheetahs run at ludicrous speeds, accelerate to those speeds almost instantly, and turn on a dime while running, a large portion of cheetah hunts are unsuccessful. Cheetahs only catch their prey 40-50% of the time, and even once they’ve caught their prey, they still can’t rest. Cheetahs are outcompeted by almost all other predators in their range, and will readily give up their hard-earned meal if challenged by even a single hyena. It’s estimated that 10-15% of cheetah kills are lost to kleptoparasitism.

A fantastic picture of a cheetah mid-stride. Image by Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cheetahs give birth to up to six cubs, which are freaking adorable. The cubs stay in a den until they are about eight weeks of age. After this they follow their mother around on hunts, though she still provides them with milk. They are weaned at six months of age, but stay with their mother until they are 15 to 17 months old. The biggest cause of cheetah cub mortality is predation from other animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. In areas with high densities of these animals, cheetah cub mortality can be staggeringly high.

Cheetahs have always been one of my favourite species of big cat. Something about the grace with which they move captivates me. One day I would love to see one of them in the wild. I’ll add that to my bucket list.

Cover image by Charles James Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons