Cheetah


Acinonyx jubatus


Height: 27 – 35 in.; weight: 77 – 143 lbs. Lightly built with long legs, small blunt feet with unsheathed claws, swayback, short neck, small rounded head, shortened face, broad low ears and small teeth. Coat is tawny with white underparts, a short ruff, fluffy hair on belly and chest, small solid black spots, end of tail with solid black rings and the tip white. Back of ears lips and nose black. “Tear stains” from the eye to the mouth is also black. Juvenile coats are darker with faint spots and a cape of long blue-gray hair.

Family

Felidae

Order

Carnivora

Class

Mammalia

Range

Near East to southern India and throughout Africa

Habitat

Most habitats except rain forest

Life Expectancy

In the wild up to 12 years; in captivity, up to 17 years

Sexual Maturity

20-23 months

Diet

In the wild, gazelles, impala, wildebeest calves, springbok, blackbuck and hares. In the zoo, commercially prepared raw meat product daily and bones twice per week.

Status

IUCN - Vulnerable

Behaviors

Cheetahs are the most diurnal of all the cats. Females are typically solitary, whereas males may be either solitary or form coalitions. Cheetahs are afraid of lions and will surrender their prey to hyenas. Even vultures can intimidate this cat. Most of the hunting takes place during the day, but during the heat of the day they rest. Male coalitions and females with sub-adult cubs will use their combined might to bring down game the size of yearling and two-year-old wildebeests. Because the cheetah’s prey tends to be migratory, their territories cover a wide area. When young reach 17 to 23 months of age, they separate from their mother. Female offspring will stay within their mother’s home range, but alone. Males will emigrate and typically wander great distances. Transient males run the risk of injury and death if caught trespassing on established male territories. Males compete for the best hunting grounds and defend areas much smaller than female ranges (reverse from other carnivores). Male coalitions – littermates often stay together for several months after separating from their mother. Females leave this sibling group by their first estrous (about 2 years). Cheetahs seldom lie in contact with one another. Greeting ceremonies rarely go beyond cheek rubbing. Hunting – Cheetahs walk alertly using termite mounds and trees with low branches as vantage points to spot potential prey. If a group of gazelles is moving in their direction, cheetahs may just use these elevated positions to wait for the prey to come to them. Cheetahs may approach slowly and openly. An alert herd may just stand and watch this approach or trot out to investigate. Before the herd takes flight (within 197 to 230 feet), cheetahs will gallop at them accelerating only after they have selected a particular quarry. If a herd is grazing unsuspectingly, cheetahs may rush from over 300 feet away and try to get close enough to select a quarry before it has detected the cheetah’s advance. Whenever cover is available, cheetahs will stalk as close as possible, walking semi-crouched with head lowered to shoulder level, trotting, freezing in mid-stride when game looks up, dropping to the ground, lying crouched or sitting. Once within range, flight triggers pursuit. An antelope or warthog that stands their ground may not be chased. The average speed during the chase is about 40 mph. If a cheetah fails to overtake their quarry within 960 feet, its breathing rate goes up to 150 respirations per minute and body temperature soars. The cheetah must cool down for ½ an hour before it can try again. If the cheetah overtakes the prey, it still may not catch it. The harder the prey runs, the easier for the cheetah to upset its balance by striking the rump, thigh or hind leg. After subduing quarry, a cheetah drags it to cover and then settles in to eat while keeping a wary eye out for predators and scavengers. A cheetah may consume approximately 30 lbs. of meat at one sitting and may not feed again for 2 to 5 days. Females with cubs are obviously kept busier. Most of the bones, skin and digestive tract are not consumed. Cheetahs will not return to a kill. Vocalizations are many and varied amongst cheetahs. The birdlike chirp may be heard up to a little over a mile away. A mother calling to her hidden or lost cubs uses it. It is used between greeting or courting adults. Or, cubs may use it around a kill. The intensity of the chirp tells the listener about the degree of excitement of the caller. Another vocalization is the churring, a staccato, high-pitched growling that is less far reaching. Cheetahs also growl, hiss, snarl and cough in anger or fright, but less frequently than the big cats. Bleating, the equivalent to meowing, is a sound of distress. Small cubs disturbed in hiding sometimes make a sound similar to the breaking of sticks. Scent-marking with urine, feces, scuffing and clawing on landmarks are used by females and males. Females may scent mark more when coming into estrus.

Adaptions

This cat species is far less adaptable to man than others found in Africa and Asia. The cheetah has, however, benefited in Namibia where lions and hyenas have been removed for the reintroduction of antelopes on ranches. An extraordinary degree of genetic uniformity raises the possibility that disease could devastate wild populations. Hind paws can be spread wide for a better push-off. Nasal cavities with their connecting passages to pharynx and to the trachea facilitate the entry and exit of air during breathing. The expansion of these connecting tracts is one reason for the bulging skull. High speed running requires massive amounts of oxygen to sustain the activity. The continuation of the spots onto the face makes the head hard to see from a distance. Black on the backs of ears is only visible from behind and the tail rings are conspicuous. These may serve as a “come follow me” signal to young.

Special Interests

Of the Serengeti cheetahs, less than ½ of the cubs survive their first 3 months. Lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, jackals and eagles will prey on young. Even adult cheetahs may be killed by the larger of these carnivores. The King Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus rex) first described in 1927 has longer, softer fur and a partial replacement of normal spots with dark bars. Only 13 skins have been recorded and they all came from Zimbabwe and adjacent areas. Initially classified as a subspecies, today it is generally accepted as merely a variety of the African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). The cheetah is the only living representative of this genus. There are seven recognized subspecies.

Folklore

Humans have tamed cheetahs and used them to run down prey for at least 4300 years. A silver vase from the Caucasus and dated to 2300 BC depicts a cheetah wearing a collar.

Conservation

The cheetah has been extirpated in most of southern Africa and much of East Africa. Removal from the wild, excessive hunting of the cheetah and its prey, human encroachment and the fur market has all contributed to the cheetah’s rapid demise. The African population may number as few as 10,000 or as many as 15,000 remaining today. The cheetah became extinct in India in the early 1950’s. Today it is extremely rare in Asia and North Africa except in equatorial forests and true deserts.

Jacksonville Zoo History

The first cheetah arrived in the Zoo’s animal collection in October 1959.

Exhibit

East African Exhibit Area