The Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is a vulnerable species within the cat family. While the fastest land animal and an adept hunter, this felid is not agressive toward other competing predators and often loses its kill to lions, leopards or hyenas.
The cheetah has many adaptations that allow it to sprint across the plains; the rangy frame supports long limbs and a deep chest cavity together with a small waist and extremely flexible spine. Unlike other cats, the claws are not retractable providing further grip on the ground. The large nostrils allow greater amounts of air to enter the lungs and the tail is particularly long to provide extra balance when cornering. The coat is a yellowish colour with black spots and a paler, whitish underbelly. Genetic colour morphs with large, blotchy markings that can merge into stripes occasionally appear in the population; these king cheetahs, as they are known were once considered to be a distinct species. The small head has high-set eyes and small, flattened ears and is instantly recognisable by the black tear lines running from the corners of the eyes to the muzzle. Cubs have a mane of tufty pale hair on the back of their necks, which sticks upright.
Cheetah in Rostocker Zoo. Source: Marcus T. Jaschen
The adult cheetah body mass is typically 32 to 65 kilograms, with males generally somewhat larger than females. The body length without tail is around 110 to 130 centimetres (cm), and tail length is approximately 70 cm; shoulder height is roughly 80 to 90 cm.
The species distinguishing facial markings are its elongated teardrop-shaped lines on each side of the nose from the eye corner to the mouth. The cheetah coat is tan, or buff coloured, with black spots measuring from 1.7 to 4.6 cm across. The whitish belly lacks spots, and the tail has spots that transition to form four to six circumferential dark rings toward the end. The tail usually ends in a bushy white tuft. Male cheetahs are slightly larger than females and have a slightly bigger head, but it is difficult to distinguish males and females apart by appearance alone.
The fur of newborn cubs is dark and the spots are blended together and scarcely visible. During the first few weeks of life, a thick yellowish-gray coat, called a mantle, grows along the cub's back. The dark colour helps the cub to blend into the shadows, and the mantle is thought to have several purposes, including acting as a thermostatic umbrella against rain and the sun, and as a camouflage imitating the dry dead grass. The mantle is also thought to be a mimicry defense, causing the cub to resemble a ratel, or honey badger, which is a very vicious small predator that is left alone by most other predators. The mantle begins to disappear at about three months, but the last traces, in the form of a small mane, are present at over two years of age.
Two dental abnormalities are manifested in the species: incisor crowding and focal palatine erosion, both considered genetic outcomes of the population bottleneck reached in the period 20,000 to 5000 years before present.
The cheetah is aerodynamically built for sprinting and can accelerate from zero to 60 kph in three strides and to full speed of 110 kph in seconds. As the cheetah runs, only one foot at a time touches the ground. There are two points, in its seven to eight metre stride when no feet touch the ground, as they are fully extended and then totally doubled up. Nearing full speed, the cheetah is running at about threestrides per second. The cheetah's respiratory rate climbs from 60 to 150 breaths per minute during a high-speed chase and can run only 200 to 500 metres before it is exhausted; at this time it is vulnerable to other predators, which may not only steal its prey, but attack it as well.
The cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal, and is the most unique and specialized member of the cat family. Compared to other cats, the cheetah has a leaner body, longer legs. Relative to other apex predators, the cheetah is not an aggressive animal, normally choosing flight versus fight. With its weak jaws and small teeth--the price it paid for speed, this felid does not fight larger predators to protect its kills or young.
Cheetahs are specialized for speed through several adaptations: a powerful heart, oversized liver, enlarged nostrils and extensive sinuses and large strong arteries. It has a small head and reduced muzzle length allowing the large eyes to be positioned for maximum binocular vision. Its body is narrow and lightweight with long, slender feet and legs, and specialized muscles, which act simultaneously for high acceleration, allowing greater swing to the limbs. Its hip and shoulder girdles swivel on a flexible spine that curves up and down, as the limbs are alternately bunched up and then extended when running, giving greater reach to the legs. The cheetah's long and muscular tail acts as a stabilizer or rudder for balance to counteract its body weight, preventing it from rolling over and spinning out in quick, fast turns during a high-speed chase. The cheetah is the only cat with short, blunt semi-retractable claws that help grip the ground like cleats for traction when running. Their paws are less rounded than the other cats, and their pads are firm, similar to tire treads, to assist in fast, sharp turns.
The generally reocognized subspecies are extremely closely related genetically, and are best presented as representatives of their respective geographic areas of occurrence:
- Acinonyx jubatus hecki (Northwest African Cheetah): Northwest Africa (Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Tunisia and Western Sahara) and western Africa (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal)
- Acinonyx jubatus raineyii: Eastern Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda)
- Acinonyx jubatus jubatus: Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia)
- Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii: Central Africa (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger, and Sudan)
- Acinonyx jubatus venaticus (Asiatic Cheetah): Originally occurring in Afghanistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia, but now thought to be extant only in Iran.
- Acinonyx jubatus velox: Western East Africa
Prior to the year 1900, cheetahs were widely distributed throughout Africa and Asia, and were originally found in all suitable habitats from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean Sea, throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, from Israel to India, and through the southern provinces of the former Soviet Union. Today, the Asian cheetah is nearly extinct, due to a decline of available habitat and prey. The species was declared extinct in India in 1952, and the last reported cheetah was seen in Israel in 1956. Today, the only confirmed reports of the Asian cheetah comes from Iran, where less than 100 occur in small isolated populations.
In the year 1900, more than 100,000 cheetahs were found in at least 44 countries throughout Africa and Asia. Today the species is extinct from over 20 of these countries, and between 10,000 to 12,500 animals remain, found mostly in small-fragmented populations in 24 to 26 countries in Africa, with fewer than 100 individuals in Iran. The cheetah is classified as a "Vulnerable" species and listed in Appendix I (which includes species that are most threatened) of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species provides additional details:
Southern Africa is the cheetah’s regional stronghold, with a roughly estimated population of at least 4500 adults (Purchase et al. 2007). This regional estimate breaks down as follows: Angola – present but unknown; Botswana – 1800; Malawi - <25 (and probably extirpated: Purchase and Purchase 2007); Mozambique: <50; Namibia – 2000; South Africa – 550; Zambia – 100; Zimbabwe – 400. A large proportion of the estimated population lives outside protected areas, in lands ranched primarily for livestock but also for wild game, and where lions and hyenas have been extirpated.
The number of known resident cheetahs in Eastern Africa (Ethiopia, southern Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) is estimated at 2572 adults and independent adolescents. Most population estimates were derived from applying a density estimate of one adult per 100 km² to mapped resident range areas during a conservation strategy workshop, although a few are based on research. Only four of the 15 known populations were estimated to number >200 animals; the largest population (Serengeti/Maro/Tsavo in Kenya and Tanzania) is estimated at 710. It would be much smaller if unprotected lands were included. Overall, less than half of the estimated cheetah population inhabits protected areas. In addition, approximately half lives in habitat blocks which are trans-boundary, requiring international cooperation for conservation of the population. Cheetahs possibly occur over an area which is several times as large as the range of the known population (Anon. 2007).
These estimates can be compared with previous population estimates based on extensive field interviews and application of density estimates. There is rough accord for Kenya at 793 (Gros 1998) and Tanzania at 569 to 1007 (Gros 2002). However, in Uganda, Gros and Rejmanek (1999) estimated 40-295 with a wider range in the Karamoja region, whereas now cheetahs have been extirpated and just 12 are estimated to persist in Kidepo National Park and surroundings (Anon. 2007).
In the remainder of Africa, there are few reliable population estimates. Cheetahs are considered extinct or possibly extinct in many countries (Marker 2002). In northwest Africa the population is probably fewer than 250 mature individuals and the subspecies A. j. heckii is listed as Critically Endangered.
In Asia cheetahs are now known to exist only in Iran, where the subspecies A. j. venaticus is estimated at 60 to 100 indididuals (Hunter et al. 2007) and listed as Critically Endangered.
The known cheetah population is not much greater than 7000, and the total population is unlikely to exceed 10,000 mature individuals, thus meeting the criteria for Vulnerable. The current known population is half the 15,000 estimated by Myers (1975) from his continental status assessment. The effective population size (the estimated percentage of the population contributing to the gene pool through reproductive success) could be less than half of the total population (Kelly 2001).
While the current rate of population decline is of most concern, and the historical rate of decline has been severe (Nowell and Jackson, 1996; Ray et al. 2005), attention has also focused on the cheetah's having perhaps suffered even more extreme losses in the distant past. The cheetah species exhibits remarkably low levels of genetic diversity in comparison to other felids (O'Brien et al. 1986) (but not compared to carnivores in general: Merola 1994). This is consistent with inbreeding among a very few individuals surviving one or more catastrophic population bottlenecks in the past, with the first possibly occurring during the late Pleistocene extinctions, around 10,000 years ago, according to analysis of mitochondrial DNA (Menotti-Raymond and O'Brien 1995).
It is unclear what sort of agent could have caused such an extreme population decline in a wide-ranging species, and alternative explanations have been explored. Hedrick (1996) suggested the low levels of genetic variation could result from a very low effective population size (the estimated percentage of the population that is actually passing on its genes), and Kelly's (2001) calculations of effective population size in cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains were quite low (44% or less of the actual population). She found that only a few females contributed disproportionately to future generations by raising offspring which survived and reproduced (Kelly 2001). Genetic analysis by Gottelli et al. (2007) showed that male cheetahs, on the other hand, passed on their genes more successfully than expected. Female cheetahs mated with multiple males, many non-resident, with 43% of litters having mixed paternity. This indicates that rates of genetic loss should be lower than anticipated by Kelly (2001), and underscores the importance of cheetah mobility in their ecology and conservation.
While the causes of the cheetah's low levels of genetic variation are unclear, what is clear is that large populations are necessary to conserve it. Since cheetahs are a low density species, conservation areas need to be quite large, larger than most protected areas.
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