Cheetahs: The Big Cats That Can Totally Pass You on the Interstate

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) may be the fastest land animal in the world, but it has not been able to outrun habitat loss, illegal poaching and conflict with humans, all of which make it an extremely vulnerable species. PXfuel

You might think your cat is special, but it's not as special as a cheetah.

But a cheetah is a majestic wild animal and my cat is not! you say. The two are fundamentally different and therefore not comparable! you say. Well. This is not to say you should have a cheetah as a pet, but that doesn't mean people haven't been domesticating these zippy cats since ancient times.


Humans and Cheetahs

Cheetahs were actually extremely common pets in ancient Egypt, were common hunting companions in the Middle East during medieval times — in fact saddles were made with special cheetah seats! — and Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire in South Asia during the 16th century, was said to have kept as many as 1,000 trained cheetahs.

Of course, no offense to your pet kitty. It's just that cheetahs are the fastest land animals on Earth. A member of the family Felidae, which includes all the cat species you know about (like lions and tigers) and even some you don't, the cheetah has all the characteristics of its clade — retractable claws, strong, flexible bodies and a diet that consists entirely of meat — but it's capable of reaching speeds up to 70 mph (113 kph) in short bursts while hunting. This means it's conceivable that a cheetah could pass you on the interstate. But excessive speed is not the only trait that sets cheetahs apart from other cats.


"Cheetahs are very special," says Dr. Laurie Marker, Founder and Executive Director of Cheetah Conservation Fund. "They are the only big cat that purrs, and they have unique vocalizations: dog-like barks, bird-like chirps, growls and hisses and a noise we call 'bubble.' They also have amazing vision — they can spot predators or prey couple of miles away across the open savanna — and a penetrating gaze."

Cheetahs are also the oldest of the big cats. Actually, calling them "big cats" is a little tricky since all the others — lions, tigers, jaguars and a few species of leopard — all belong to the genus Panthera. Cheetahs belong to Acinonyx, which means "unmovable nail" in Greek (although all cats have retractable claws, a cheetah's claws don't entirely retract) — according to Marker, they are the only surviving member of this genus, which has been around for perhaps 5 million years.


Cheetahs in the Ecosystem

Cheetahs live in grasslands in parts of Africa and the Middle East, where the occupy a spot at the top of the food chain, preferring small to midsized prey like hares, gazelles, impala and wildebeast calves. With their exceptional eyesight and lightning speed, they're among the best hunters on the savanna.

"They have a tail that acts like a rudder and can turn them on a dime, and they can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph (96.5 kph) in about three seconds, like a sports car," says Marker. "This means cheetah can help feed many other carnivore species on the savanna — lion, leopard, hyena, jackals, wild dogs and vultures."


Cheetah mothers are extremely attentive to their babies. They groom newborn cubs constantly, purring and snuggling them in secluded nests away from any other cheetah for six to eight weeks after birth, with the mother moving the nest every few days to avoid detection by predators. Cheetah cubs remain with their mothers for around a year and a half, playing and learning the cheetah ropes.

"At between 18 and 22 months of age, the cubs will wander off by themselves — females go off on their own to find a mate, but the males stick together, usually for life," says Marker. "The brothers form coalitions that enable them to hunt larger prey, like adult female kudu. Being in a coalition allows them to secure a better territory that will attract females — considerations include better preybase, water and cover for having cubs."


Cheetah Numbers Are Dwindling

Only around 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild and they're listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

"Across their range, cheetahs are threatened by human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and loss of prey base, population fragmentation and lack of genetic diversity," says Marker. "In the Horn of Africa and East Africa, cheetahs are threatened by illegal wildlife trade."