Faster Than a Speeding Cheetah

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Cats are nature’s perfect killing machines. Their enormous carnassials and their inability to chew indicate a diet devoted solely to carnivory. No other group of mammals is so well-adapted for consuming flesh. For the most part, different species of cat all share these lethal traits and look remarkable similar to each other; take away the fur, and it is nearly impossible to differentiate a lion from a tiger. However, there is one cat who bucks these trends. It has sacrificed strength for speed to adopt a specialized hunting style that makes it stand apart form its fellow felines. Of all extant cats, none is more distinctive in terms of both morphology and behavior than the cheetah.

Are cheetahs one of the big cats?

While they are often considered big cats, cheetahs are not closely related to the cats of the genus Panthera. Being a “big cat” has nothing to do with size and in fact the cheetah overlaps its size range with both the leopard and the mountain lion, the former being a true big cat. The term actually applies to the ability to roar, which only a few species possess due to having an ossified hyoid; the cheetah is not one of these species. Genetic research shows them to be most closely related to the mountain lion and jaguarundi.

How big are cheetahs?

Cheetahs are mid-sized cats, weighing between 50 and 150 pounds. They lack the heavy musculature of other cat species and with their lean frames have a markedly canine appearance. Thanks to their long, slender legs, cheetahs can stand as tall as three feet at the shoulder. Unlike the coat of a leopard or jaguar, a cheetah’s is covered in spots rather than rosettes and no two cheetahs bear the exact same pattern. An adult cheetah can measure nearly five feet long, not including a nearly three-foot tail. The extinct giant cheetah, Acinonyx pardinensis, was nearly double the size and lived in Eurasia during the Pleistocene epoch.

Where do cheetahs live?

The cheetah could once be found throughout a wide swathe of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Prehistoric cheetahs used to roam Europe, China, and India. They can thrive in a variety of habitats from open savanna to scrub forest and woodland, generally avoiding montane areas, tropical forest, and desert. Their range has been dramatically reduced in the last 500 years, encompassing roughly 11 percent of its original area. The cheetah’s stronghold today is in southern Africa, and the only surviving population of Asiatic cheetahs, which is believed to be at most 100 animals, live in Iran.

How do cheetahs hunt?

Like all cats the cheetah is a hypercarnivore but unlike other cats it is adapted for being a pursuit predator. Cats are typically ambush predators, as they lack the stamina for prolonged chases. They stalk up on prey, pounce on it, and dispatch it with a crushing bite to the back of the neck or the throat. With their light fames and lanky limbs, the cheetah is proportioned much more like a dog, specifically a greyhound. Its hunting style is all about speed. At full tilt, a cheetah can run at speeds in access of 60 miles per hour and accelerate to this velocity in just a few seconds. No other land animal can sprint as fast as a cheetah and every aspect of their anatomy is evolved to help them run. The small, aerodynamic head sports large nostrils to maximize oxygen intake and black tear streaks to reduce glare. A deep chest houses a much larger heart and lungs than found in other cats. Thanks to their highly flexible spines, a cheetah can cover nearly 23 feet in a single stride and when it runs it is airborne fully half the time; even a cheetah with its legs cut off could hypothetically move at five miles an hours using just its spine. Cheetah claws are non-retractile and act like cleats to give the animal extra traction while the long tail acts as a rudder to aid in maneuverability. However, they cannot maintain this speed for much more than 1500 feet. Were they to run any further or faster, their body would overheat to the point of lethality. Cheetahs prey primarily on gazelles and small- to medium-sized antelopes which they catch by tripping with their enlarged sharpened dewclaw and then dispatching with a suffocating throat-clamp. Due to their speed, cheetahs are successful in up to 50 percent of their hunts. However, due to the huge expenditure of energy they are often unable to fight off kleptoparasites such as lions and hyenas. They have evolved the sharpest carnassials of any cat as a result which allows them to consume meat quickly. In a single sitting, a cheetah and devour over 20 pounds of flesh and they are known to keep hydrated by drinking the blood of their prey. Unlike other cats, cheetahs are not known to scavenge and hunt primarily during the day.

Are cheetahs social?

The cheetah is the only cat other than the lion to spend time in social groups, although the structure is very different from a pride. Females without cubs and adolescent males typically live alone. Related males may gather in groups of two or three in what is known as a coalition, although these may be made up on unrelated males. Coalitions collectively defend their territory form interlopers, whereas females do not establish a set territory and wander freely through a home range of up to 540 square miles.

Are cheetahs dangerous to people?

While they are predators and as such demand respect, cheetahs are not considered dangerous to humans. They lack the musculature of a leopard of similar bodyweight and are not effective at taking down large, aggressive prey. There are no record of man-eating cheetahs. However, they have been tamed as hunting animals since the days of antiquity. The oldest records of tame cheetahs date back to 3000 BC from Sumeria, although they were also used by the Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, and Mughal nobility.

Are cheetahs endangered?

Cheetahs are considered to be an endangered species, although their exact status is currently under debate. With a total population estimated at around 7100 individuals, it has been suggested that their status be updated from vulnerable to endangered. They face a wide variety of threats. For starters, there is a lot of competition out on African plains and the cheetah is far from the top of the carnivore totem pole. Over 80 percent of all cheetah cubs are killed with their first few weeks of life, usually by lions. It is believed the whitish mane the cubs sport is meant to serve as a defense as it vaguely mimics the notoriously aggressive honey badger. Cheetahs also have extremely low genetic diversity thanks to several population bottlenecks that have occurred. This leaves the species susceptible to inbreeding-related problems. Much of their habitat has been taken over by humans, further fragmenting their population. They have been hunted both for sport and for allegedly preying on livestock. Cheetahs are popular as exotic pets in the Middle East, where they are viewed as symbols of high-status. Over a dozen African nations have set up active cheetah conservation plans. During the late 2000’s a plan was proposed to reintroduce cheetahs to India, but was scrapped in 2012.

 

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