Cheetah Facts

18 Cheetah Facts Exploring Their Speed and More

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) belong to the Felidae family and are renowned for their unrivaled speed and agility. They are easily recognized by their slender bodies, spotted coats, and striking black "tear marks" that help them hunt prey. Curious to find out more about these big cats? This list of cheetah facts explores various aspects of their lives, from their physical adaptations and social structure to the threats they face in the wild.

The cheetah is the world's fastest land animal, reaching up to 70 mph in short bursts while hunting. Featuring lean frames and non-retractable claws, their bodies are designed for such speeds. 

Sadly, cheetahs face numerous challenges, such as habitat loss, human conflict, and illegal fur trade. Consequently, they are classified as "vulnerable," with a mere ~6,700 adult and adolescent individuals remaining in the wild. Read on as we also explore some of the conservation efforts safeguarding the future of cheetahs, ensuring their survival for generations to come.

18 Cheetah Facts You Should Know

1. Cheetahs are Earth's fastest land animals

Cheetah running
Photo by Sammy Wong on Unsplash

Cheetahs hold the title of Earth's fastest land animals. While hunting, these remarkable predators can reach astounding speeds of up to 70 mph, allowing them to capture swift prey like gazelles and impalas. Moreover, their acceleration is equally impressive; they can sprint from a standstill to 60 mph in a mere three seconds6.

The cheetah’s unique anatomy enables these big cats to achieve this incredible feat. Besides their slender bodies, they have flexible spines and long limbs. Their specialized muscles also grant them a greater range of motion and power output. 

However, even though cheetahs can run super fast, they can only maintain their top velocity for about 20-30 seconds. Sprinting at such velocity requires tremendous amounts of energy, so cheetahs can’t keep these speeds up for long.

Additionally, a cheetah’s respiratory rate soars during a high-speed chase, rising from 60 breaths per minute to 150 breaths per minute. Likewise, their body temperature can reach a scorching 105°F (41°C), close to their heat tolerance limit. 

After an exhausting chase, cheetahs must rest and cool down for roughly 30 minutes before they can safely enjoy their hard-earned meal.

2. Cheetahs’ slender bodies, long legs, and spotted coats provide excellent camouflage

Cheetah family in the wild
Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

A cheetah's distinct spotted coat pattern comprises solid black spots on a tawny background, resembling the dappled sunlight and shadows found in their natural habitat. This camouflage prevents a cheetah's prey from seeing the outline of the predator’s body, giving them the advantage of surprise. 

Interestingly, each cheetah sports a unique arrangement of spots akin to human fingerprints, which researchers use to identify individual animals. These spots also reflect heat, keeping cheetahs cool in the hot African climate7.

3. Cheetahs belong to the big cat family Felidae

Cheetah face on in the savannah
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

Cheetahs are part of the big cat family Felidae along with Tigers, Leopards, and Lions. However, their unique physical characteristics and interesting genetic makeup separate them from their feline relatives. 

As the only living representatives of the genus Acinonyx, cheetahs split from their closest relatives—pumas and jaguarundis—about 6.7 million years ago. Around three million years ago, the Acinonyx genus emerged from the split and introduced at least six distinct species throughout its existence1

Sadly, today’s cheetahs have reached a genetic bottleneck, resulting in low genetic diversity and increased susceptibility to diseases. This lack of diversity stems from factors like population decline and habitat fragmentation.

Today, two subspecies of Acinonyx jubatus exist. One subspecies is the African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus), which is more widespread but still faces significant threats. The other is the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), now only found in Iran.

4. Cheetahs’ black facial "tear marks" reduce sun glare and enhance their vision

close up of a cheetah's black tear marks
Photo by Nick Kwan on Unsplash

A cheetah’s face has unique black "tear marks" stretching from the inner corners of its eyes to the sides of its mouth. These malar stripes reduce sun glare and improve their remarkable feline eyesight.

Moreover, this ability to minimize glare and absorb light gives the cheetah a clear advantage during a daytime hunt. Their sharp vision helps them spot and track various prey species, such as wildebeest calves, across the bright and vast African savanna. 

5. Male cheetahs form "coalitions," while female cheetahs are usually solitary animals

Cheetahs exhibit unique social behaviors among big cat species. Male cheetahs group themselves into “coalitions.” The group usually consists of two to three related individuals, often siblings, who team up after leaving their mother's care. 

Occasionally, unrelated males may join an existing coalition, increasing their chances of hunting success and overall survival.

Male groups hunt larger prey together and defend their territory from rivals. However, they do not follow a strict social hierarchy. On the other hand, coalition members often exhibit strong bonds. They like to groom one another and show affection.

In contrast, females generally live alone. They interact with male cheetahs only when they need to mate or raise their cubs. 

This independence and their wide-ranging behavior mean that a female cheetah focuses mainly on rearing their young over defending territory or hunting with other cheetahs. When cheetahs mate, the males within a coalition may share a mate, with the dominant individual typically breeding first

6. Cheetahs hunt using "coursing" 

Cheetah's hunt
Photo by Dmitrii Zhodzishskii on Unsplash

Cheetahs hunt with a unique hunting method called "coursing." They chase prey through open terrain, relying on their rapid acceleration and high speeds.

Cheetahs' prey includes gazelles (particularly Thomson's gazelles), impalas, and a range of other small to medium-sized antelopes, as well as hares, birds, and rodents.

Cheetahs primarily hunt during the day, which also helps prevent nocturnal predators from stealing their catch. When the cheetah reaches within 50 to 100 meters of its prey, it sprints at jaw-dropping speeds to overtake the target. 

A cheetah can accelerate to 70 mph in just a few seconds. However, a cheetah chase can only cover up to 200 meters in an intense 20- to 30-second dash when chasing prey. Their long tails act like a rudder, allowing for sharp turns and swift adjustments to the prey's attempts at evading them. 

Despite spending considerable amounts of energy, cheetahs only catch their prey in nearly half of their hunts. However, cheetahs must eat soon after the hunt as their depleted energy reserves make them vulnerable to larger predators looking to snatch their hard-won meal.

7. Cheetahs’ lean bodies and large nasal passages help them breathe oxygen efficiently

Efficient breathing is a vital element in a cheetah’s hunting method. Their large nasal passages and high lung capacity help them breathe more oxygen during a chase. The cheetah's circulatory system is also designed to quickly deliver oxygen-rich blood to its muscles.

More blood and oxygen to the muscles fuel their powerful and rapid contractions. Moreover, a high red blood cell count also enhances oxygen delivery.

Adrenaline also increases the cheetah's heart rate, further improving oxygen transport. As a result, cheetahs can recover quickly after a sprint; they only need a short rest before they are ready to hunt again. 

8. Cheetahs’ semi-retractable claws give better traction during high-speed hunts

Cheetahs boast an adaptation unique among the Felidae family: semi-retractable claws. Most big cats have fully retractable claws to keep them sharp and protect them. 

However, cheetahs’ claws are always exposed, like cleats on sports shoes. Thanks to their superior grip and traction, these specialized claws help the cheetahs stay on the ground while running2.

Moreover, the cheetah has evolved specialized paw pads to add grip and friction, complementing the claws themselves. Strategically, their claws aren’t designed for grappling with prey but for tripping them with their front legs. We must remember, though, that this unique speed adaptation comes at a cost: cheetahs can’t climb trees very well.

9. Cheetahs live in the African savannas, grasslands, and open plains

Cheetahs thrive in habitats like African savannas, grasslands, and open plains. These wide-open spaces offer excellent visibility for spotting prey. 

Likewise, the tall grass and sparse trees give them ample cover, helping the cheetah sneak up on their prey until the perfect moment to strike. Most cheetahs live in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Tanzania, whose landscapes are perfect fits for their hunting strategies.

Surprisingly, a small, critically endangered population of Asiatic cheetahs exists in Iran, primarily in arid regions and protected national parks. Besides living in a unique ecosystem, the Asiatic cheetahs face challenges like habitat fragmentation due to human development.

10. Female cheetahs give birth to litters of two to eight cubs

Cheetah cubs playing
Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

A female cheetah reaches sexual maturity at around 21-22 months. When the females reach this age, they begin to engage in a polygamous mating system; both males and females have multiple partners. 

Cheetahs mate throughout the year and their rate increases when prey becomes more abundant. 

Following a gestation period of about 90-95 days, the female cheetah seeks out dense vegetation or secluded areas to give birth and protect its vulnerable newborn cubs. A litter typically consists of two to eight cubs, each weighing between 5.3 to 10.6 ounces (150 to 300 grams) at birth.

The first few months of a cub's life are crucial for their development and survival. After four to 11 days, their eyes open, and they start walking around in two weeks. Cheetah mothers protect their young cubs and teach them essential skills they will need in adulthood. 

After three months or so, the cubs are weaned, though they still depend on their mother for sustenance and protection and stay with her for 1.5 to 2 years, learning vital hunting and survival skills through play and observation. Once they learn these skills, the young cheetahs go out into the wild, prepared to face the challenges of their natural habitat.

11. Newborn cheetah cubs have a silver-gray fur mantle, offering camouflage and protection

Cheetah cubs standing
Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Upon birth, cheetah cubs boast a unique feature: a silver-gray fur mantle covering their necks to the base of their tails. Exclusive to cheetah cubs, this mantle is an essential safeguard for their early weeks of life. 

Born blind, the cubs have to rely heavily on their mothers. On the other hand, their mantles’ color adds protection by helping them blend into the tall grasses. This natural camouflage keeps the cubs away from the watch of predators such as lions, hyenas, and eagles.

For approximately three months, the mantle protects and insulates the growing cubs. As they develop, the cubs gradually acquire their characteristic spots, improving their ability to stay hidden in their natural habitat. Intriguingly, the silver-gray mantle resembles honey badgers, a fiercely aggressive and fearless species. 

12. Cheetah cubs suffer high mortality rates

Cubs face a daunting journey from birth to adulthood4, with a staggering 90% never making it to adulthood. When the mother cheetah hunts for its food, she leaves her offspring vulnerable to predators like lions, hyenas, and leopards.

Researchers and conservationists working with cheetahs have also observed that cubs also grapple with disease, malnutrition, and competition for limited resources. Illnesses like feline distemper and various infections can rapidly spread through a litter, which can kill multiple cubs. 

Moreover, malnutrition remains a constant concern since the mother's hunting success directly impacts the cubs' survival. Additionally, the cubs compete with their siblings for both food and maternal care, causing the weaker ones to struggle and sometimes perish. Since only 10% of cubs reach adulthood, conservation efforts become more important.

13. Cheetahs communicate through purrs, hisses, growls, and chirps

Cheetahs can purr like domestic cats. These big cats purr during social situations, such as grooming or mother-cub bonding.

In contrast, hisses and growls signal fear, anger, or discomfort. Cheetahs typically direct these warning sounds toward other cheetahs or potential threats. These hisses and growls signify that a cheetah wants the other animal to back off or hesitate in approaching. 

Interestingly, cheetahs also communicate with high-pitched, bird-like chirps or "churring." This vocalization helps reunite family members, particularly mothers and their cubs. Sometimes, females “churr” to attract potential mates during mating season.

14. Cheetahs can live in the wild for 10-12 years, while captive ones live for 17 years

2 Cheetahs in the wild
Photo by Yolande Conradie on Unsplash

In the wild, cheetahs face several challenges that affect their survival. Their typical lifespan ranges from ten to 12 years. For example, they compete with other predators like lions and leopards for resources and territory, which leads to injuries or deaths. Likewise, the harsh savanna and grassland conditions expose these creatures to diseases and parasites.

Predation and other environmental factors contribute to high mortality rates among cubs. Overall, these factors limit the average lifespan of wild cheetahs.

On the other hand, captive cheetahs live longer, reaching up to 17 years. They benefit from controlled, supportive environments such as zoos, sanctuaries, and conservation centers. 

Captive cheetahs enjoy a consistent food supply3, helping them avoid injury and risky hunting behaviors. 

15. Cheetahs were pets and hunting companions for the Ancient Egyptians

Cheetahs enjoyed a unique position of reverence and admiration in ancient Egypt. These elegant felines symbolized royalty and power. Likewise, these big cats enchanted ancient Egyptians with their speed, agility, and hunting prowess.

Pharaohs and noblemen tamed cheetahs to become pets and kept them around their palaces and during hunting expeditions. Their ability to domesticate wild cheetahs showcased the Egyptians' profound knowledge and expertise in animal training.

Cheetahs were status symbols in ancient Egyptian society, often adorned with ornate collars and leashes. We can see how the Egyptians admired these animals in artistic representations found in hieroglyphics, inscriptions, and murals. For example, the tomb of Tutankhamun features images of the young pharaoh with a cheetah, while some sources suggest a sacred connection between cheetahs and the goddess Mafdet.

Throughout the history of ancient Egypt, cheetahs were reputed to be esteemed companions and skilled hunters, amassing tremendous cultural significance. 

16. Only 6,674 adult and adolescent cheetahs are estimated to remain in the wild

There are only about 6,700 adult and adolescent wild cheetahs around the world, most of which live primarily in both eastern and southern Africa. Namibia is home to the largest cheetah population, boasting approximately 1,500 of these majestic animals. 

The IUCN assessment also states that Botswana and South Africa host significant cheetah populations, with around 1,800 and 1,300 individuals, respectively.

Habitat loss and fragmentation pose major threats to the cheetah population5. As humans encroach upon their natural habitats, cheetah populations become increasingly isolated. Their isolation leads to reduced gene flow and a weakened gene pool. Moreover, the cheetah has an innately low reproductive success rate, which exacerbates these problems. 

Organizations have begun conservation efforts to address these issues, such as securing habitats and developing wildlife corridors. Additionally, community-based programs help protect these big cats by reducing human-wildlife conflict and promoting coexistence. 

17. Cheetahs have become a "vulnerable" species due to habitat loss, conflict, and fur poaching

With declining numbers in the wild, the cheetah has been assigned a “vulnerable” conservation status and endangered under the Endangered Species Act. One primary cause of this decline is habitat loss, rapid agricultural expansion, human settlements encroaching on natural territories, and infrastructure development. 

The expansion of human communities has meant a reduction in the cheetahs’ roaming and hunting areas, leaving fewer resources and pushing the animals into closer contact with humans. Moreover, habitat fragmentation isolates cheetah populations, restricting genetic diversity and hindering successful breeding.

Besides habitat loss, cheetahs suffer from human-wildlife conflict and fur poaching. The decrease in natural prey forces cheetahs to attack livestock to survive, prompting the farmers to kill these predators in retaliation. Then, hunters in the illegal wildlife trade capture and sell cubs to the exotic pet market. Otherwise, they kill the animals for their fur to be used in fashion and traditional medicine. 

Finally, cheetahs now occupy only 9% of their historical range. Taken together, these factors have contributed to their precarious conservation status. 

Conservation groups have started efforts to protect the remaining cheetah population. They have implemented habitat restoration programs, community-based initiatives, anti-poaching measures, and public awareness campaigns to ensure the survival of this iconic species.

18. The Cheetah Conservation Fund leads global efforts to save cheetahs in the wild

Founded in 1990 by Dr. Laurie Marker, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) stands at the forefront of global efforts to protect and conserve wild cheetah populations. The organization is based in Namibia, home to the largest population of these majestic animals. Since its founding, the CCF has started various innovative programs and initiatives to address the threats faced by cheetahs in the wild.

One key to the CCF's work is reducing conflict between the animals and the local community, fostering coexistence. The organization trains farmers in livestock management and promotes the use of guard dogs to protect livestock from predators. The retaliatory killings of cheetahs have lessened thanks to better livestock protection and management practices.

Besides community-focused initiatives, the Cheetah Conservation Fund undertakes crucial scientific research and monitoring activities of cheetah populations. Researchers use GPS collars, camera traps, and other tracking methods to keep an eye on cheetah movements and population trends. 

Moreover, the CCF is actively involved in habitat restoration projects, such as reforestation and bush-clearing. Restoring their natural habitats ensures a suitable environment for the world’s fastest land animals to thrive. The CCF’s multifaceted approach to conservation significantly influences the long-term survival of the global wild cheetah population while also filling the needs of human communities who live in the same areas.

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with C.

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Pin Image Portrait 18 Top Cheetah Facts Exploring Their Speed and More
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Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.

Fact Checked By:
Ben Hart

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