Cheetah - Master of Speed

Author: Ryan Johnston

The cheetah stands as one of the most captivating and iconic big cats in the world. Known for its incredible speed and distinctive appearance, the cheetah has evolved numerous adaptations to thrive in its diverse habitats. Today is International Cheetah Day, and so we are going to have a look at some of these special traits.

Adaptations

The cheetah’s body is uniquely designed for speed. Its lightweight skeleton and long, muscular limbs contribute to its remarkable agility and acceleration. The spine is highly flexible, allowing the cheetah to stretch its body during strides, achieving an extensive range of motion. As with most cats, the forelimbs are not connected by shoulder blades like us, but rather by muscle and tissues, allowing for a larger reach. This allows for a larger gate and faster acceleration.

Cheetah on safari with Wandering Thru

Cheetahs possess powerful muscles, particularly in their hind legs, which are crucial for explosive bursts of speed. The muscles are densely packed with fast-twitch fibers, emphasizing their adaptation for short sprints rather than endurance.The cheetah’s slender body, streamlined head, and aerodynamic tail aid in reducing air resistance during rapid chases. This streamlined design minimises drag, enabling the cheetah to reach astonishing speeds in pursuit of prey.

Efficient oxygen intake is vital for sustained exertion. Cheetahs have enlarged nasal passages and lungs that enhance oxygen flow, supporting their respiratory needs during high-speed pursuits. 

The iconic black tear stripes on a cheetah’s face serve multiple purposes. These markings are believed to protect against the sun’s glare, helping the cheetah maintain focus during hunts. Remembering that cheetah hunt during the day for two reasons. One, as it would be incredibly difficult to run at their high speeds in the darkness, although in some areas they have been known to hunt under the full moon. Secondly, predators like lions and hyenas, which steal a large amount of cheetah kills, are less active during the heat of the day, so there is less chance of a kill being stolen. Additionally, it has been thought that these tear stripes may function as a means of communication among cheetahs, but this is yet to be proven.

Cheetahs possess semi-retractable claws that provide additional traction during sprints. Unlike other big cats, their claws lack full retractability, offering improved grip on the ground similar to cleats on sports shoes. The only sharp claw on a cheetah’s foot is the dew claw. This is there to help the big cat trip its prey while hunting.

Cheetahs have specialised binocular vision, allowing them to accurately gauge distances and track fast-moving prey. This adaptation enhances their hunting precision, particularly during the critical moments of a chase. They have given up their nocturnal vision for this, though, and cannot see as well in the dark as their cousins can.

Male cheetahs exhibit a unique social structure and are the only large cats other than lions that form coalitions. Unlike lions, though, who will join up with brothers, cousins, and occasionally other males, cheetahs will only stay with brothers from the same litter. Female cheetahs can have large litters of up to six, and so coalitions of six have been recorded before. This cooperative living arrangement helps them share responsibilities, such as hunting and protecting their territories, contributing to their overall survival.

Cheetah family on safari with Wandering Thru

Speed

Cheetahs are renowned as the fastest land animals, capable of reaching speeds between 80 and 107 kilometres per hour (50 and 70 miles per hour). This extraordinary speed is crucial for successful hunts, as it allows them to close the gap between themselves and their prey rapidly.

What sets the cheetah apart is not just its top speed but also its exceptional acceleration. In just a few seconds, a cheetah can accelerate from 0 to full speed, surpassing most sports cars in speed and agility. It takes just two strides, and they can achieve this. Amazingly, as fast as they accelerate, they stop. If they do not catch an animal within a certain distance, the lactic acid buildup is too much, and the cheetah has to stop or run the risk of overheating and dying.

Cheetahs are primarily diurnal hunters, relying on their speed and stealth to approach prey closely before initiating a high-speed chase. Their hunting strategy involves stalking, selecting the optimal moment to sprint, and using their exceptional acceleration to catch the prey off guard. They will sprint behind their prey, but rather than jumping on it and overpowering it like leopards, they “ankle-tap” the prey species while it is still running, tripping it. This sends the animal sprawling, and the cat takes this opportunity to rush in and asphyxiate the exhausted animal.

Distribution

Historically, cheetahs had a broad distribution across Africa and parts of the Middle East and South Asia. They were once found in diverse habitats, including grasslands, savannas, and open forests.

Today, the cheetah’s range has significantly contracted due to habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching. They are now primarily found in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with a few populations persisting in Iran. There is a project under way at the moment to try and reintroduce them into India, but this is still ongoing.

Cheetah on safari with Wandering Thru

One thing that is helping cheetahs at the moment is the fact that farmers don’t kill them purposefully. They are not seen as a threat to livestock like the other large predators. Shepherds or large dogs kept in flocks are sufficient to deter cheetahs from going after sheep or goats. They do, however, kill small antelope and hares that may compete with livestock for food.

Cheetahs face various threats, leading to their classification as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Conservation efforts focus on habitat protection, reducing human-wildlife conflict, and addressing the illegal wildlife trade to ensure the cheetah’s survival.

Conclusion

The cheetah’s adaptations for speed and survival have made it an unparalleled predator in the animal kingdom. Despite facing numerous challenges to its existence, ongoing conservation efforts try to protect this magnificent species and ensure its continued presence in the wild. Understanding the cheetah’s unique features and behaviors provides valuable insights into the delicate balance between adaptation, speed, and the challenges of coexisting with humans in an ever-changing environment.

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