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Acinonyx jubatus, the fastest mammal on land
The legs of a cheetah are disproportionately long when compared with other cats, and the head is small. The length of the head and body is just over 4 feet and that of the tail 2 feet. It stands just over 3 feet high and weighs over 100 pounds.
The ground color of the coat is tawny to light gray with white underparts. The characteristic black spots measure from .75 to 1.5 inches in diameter.
Unlike other cats, the cheetah has claws that are blunt and can be only partly retracted.
Distribution and Habitat
The original range of the cheetah extended from Pakistan westwards across to Libya and southwards through the African continent to South Africa. Today, however, its range is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and northern Iran. Cheetah prefer areas with tall grass and shrubs. They also seek out areas with many elevated points to look for prey from.
The main prey are small-hoofed animals, chiefly axis deer and gazelles. They will also attack large animals such as wildebeeste and zebra, as well as small animals such as hares and the occasional game bird.
Unlike other big cats, which tend to lie in wait for their prey and pounce with a single leap or a short rush when they are close enough, cheetahs will stalk their prey and then race after them, for some distance. In a short sprint they can easily overtake their prey, but if the latter gets a good start, the cheetah will drop out of the chase, exhausted from its burst of violent energy. Once caught the prey is knocked down and then dispatched with a bite to the jugular vein.
A cheetah can reach a speed of 70 mph, but only over a short distance. After a few hundred yards it gives up, so although a cheetah will outclass a human athlete in the 200-meter sprint, it is unlikely to complete the course in the 1,500-meter event.
Cheetah paws are less rounded and harder than most cats; this aids the cat in making quick turns. Its semi-retractable claws provide traction during running. Large lungs, liver, heart, and adrenal glands facilitate a rapid physical response. It has a long, fluid body which is streamlined over light bones. The tail acts to balance the body during quick turning. The spine functions as a spring for the back legs.
Breeding occurs throughout the year. Gestation lasts 90 to 95 days. An average litter consists of three to five cubs. Cubs begin to follow their mother at 6 weeks of age, are weaned at 3 to 6 months, and go off on their own at 13 to 20 months. Fathers take no part in cub rearing.
Other Habits and Behaviors
Female cheetahs are solitary, except when they have a litter, while males are seldom seen alone. Although males and females may share territories they only come together for mating.
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This page was last updated on May 12, 2017.