Acinonyx jubatuscheetah

Geographic Range

The historic distribution of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) is very wide. It ranged from Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula to Tajikistan and central India, as well as throughout the continent of Africa excluding the zones of tropical forest and central Sahara. This range might include the arid and semiarid habitats of the regions of south, east, and north Africa and less arid areas of India, Turkmenistan, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia. In regions of Africa and Asia, European settlers treated cheetahs as vermin to be eradicated. The range of cheetahs was greatly reduced by the 1970s, and surveys conducted before 2005 indicate that the cheetah is present in 25 countries on the African continent. (Caro, 1994; Eaton, 1982; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Myers, 1975; Nowak, 1999; Roosevelt, 1910; Turner, 1997)

Habitat

Habitats that are favored by cheetahs include grasslands and deserts. Cheetahs are terrestrial, but have been known to climb trees on occasion. (Caro, 1994; Ortolani, et al., 1996)

Physical Description

Cheetahs are slim and have relatively long legs in relation to their body size when compared with other cats, with a small, rounded head and short ears. Their monomorphic pelage is pale yellow, gray, or fawn on dorsal surfaces, and is speckled with small, round, unarranged black spots throughout the body and set closely together. The ventral surfaces are paler than the dorsal, often white or a light tan. The fur is coarse to the touch with a slight mane of longer hair on the nape. Their faces are distinctly marked with a black lachrymal stripe from the anterior corner of the eye alongside the length of the muzzle. The eyes of adults and cubs have circular pupils when contracted and relaxed. The ears are small and rounded, with lightly colored inner fur in contrast to the posterior side, which has a black patch within the main dorsal color of the individual. Their tails are spotted above with a background the main dorsal color of the individual, and the ventral surface is the same paler color as the main ventral color. The posterior third of the tail has a series of dark or black rings terminating in a white tip. The paws of cheetahs are narrow in comparison to other cats. The front paws have four toes and a dewclaw, and the hind paws have four toes. The claws are slightly curved and blunted from contact with the ground, as cheetahs have weakly retractile claws with no protective skin folds. (Caro, 1994; Cuvier, et al., 1978; Eaton, 1982; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Lydekker, 1895; Nowak, 1999)

Body lengths of cheetahs range from 112 to 150 cm. Tail lengths are between 60 and 80 cm and the height at the shoulder is 67 to 94 cm. The weights of cheetahs range from 21 to 72 kg, with the average male larger than the average female. Cheetah skulls are short and broad, above the muzzle and cranium they are highly raised and vaulted. Nasal openings are dorsally broad and enlarged, with the bony plate extending well behind the molars. Nasal passages are large in comparison with other cats. Young cubs have a pronounced mane that extends over the head, neck, and back, and is distinctly lighter shade, often looking gray, white or bluish-gray. The long, woolly mane of cubs is thought to make them less conspicuous to predators. Despite the long fur of cubs, spots are consistently visible on the underfur. Cubs gradually lose their mane until they are adolescent. (Caro, 1994; Cuvier, et al., 1978; Eaton, 1982; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Lydekker, 1895; Nowak, 1999)

In 1927, an additional species of cheetahs was described as king cheetahs (Acinonyx rex). The specimens differed from other cheetahs having longer and softer fur and deviations from the typical spotted pattern. King cheetahs had dark bars in addition to spots on the typical yellow pelage. Fourteen skins were recorded from the wild in Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso. It is now accepted that these individuals are an atypical phenotype of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) with a slight melanistic trend. Individuals with king cheetah markings have been bred from captive cheetahs with otherwise typical litters. Little information is available for other phenotypic variations. Albanism and melanism have been well documented in other species of cat, including the tiger, the African lion, the leopard, and the jaguar. (Caro, 1994; Cuvier, et al., 1978; Eaton, 1982; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Lydekker, 1895; Nowak, 1999)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    21 to 72 kg
    46.26 to 158.59 lb
  • Range length
    112 to 150 cm
    44.09 to 59.06 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    61.77 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Cheetahs are promiscuous in nature, with the limiting factor for males being accessibility to females. The factor limiting reproductive success for females is access to resources. Males associate with females only at mating, provide no parental care, and will mate with as many females as possible. Females are essentially solitary and will breed throughout the year, though the majority of copulations on the Serengeti occur during the wet season. Females will mate with different males over successive attempts, and if encounters with male coalitions occur, they may mate with more than one individual. Females have territories that will overlap with the territories of other females and males. Males, in or not in coalitions, will have territories in which they travel in search of females and will also leave their territories in search of females in estrus. Non-territorial males will travel the territories of resident males in search of females while keeping a low profile. (Caro, 1994)

Female cheetahs are polyestrus and in captivity cycle on average every 3 to 27 days, and may be receptive from 1 to 14 days. Cheetahs must be induced to ovulate, and there is little evidence for seasonal breeding. Females undergo their first cycle at the age of 13 to 16 months, and on average reach sexual maturity between the ages of 21 to 22 months. Females typically give birth to their first litter at an average of 2.4 years of age, with intervals between litters of 20.1 months and a mean litter size of 2.1 cubs. There is no evidence to suggest that females visit male territories in order to choose between different resident males. The average copulation frequency for cheetahs is 3 to 5 times per day. (Broom, 1949; Caro and Collins, 1987a; Caro, 1994; Eaton, 1974; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Wack, et al., 1991; Wrogemann, 1975)

Gestation lasts between 90 and 95 days. Cheetah cubs are altricial at birth. They have closed eyes, little locomotive skill, and will open their eyes 4 to 11 days after birth. Young cheetahs will begin walking after 12 to 13 days when their eyes are open. At birth in the wild, cubs weigh between 250 and 300 grams, but in captivity can reach 460 grams. Litter sizes have been recorded up to 8 cubs in captivity, but 6 is the maximum that has been recorded in the wild. The average litter size in the wild is 2.6 cubs. Deciduous milk teeth in cubs erupt between 3 and 6 weeks of age, and will not be replaced with permanent teeth until the cubs are around 8 months old. Cubs are weaned from milk before their permanent teeth erupt, between 3 and 6 months of age. Cubs will stay with their mother until they are 15 to 17 months old. (Broom, 1949; Caro and Collins, 1987a; Caro, 1994; Eaton, 1974; Kitchener, 1991; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Wack, et al., 1991; Wrogemann, 1975)

  • Breeding interval
    The breading frequency of cheetahs is unknown.
  • Breeding season
    Females enter estrus at any point during the year.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 6
  • Average number of offspring
    2.1
  • Average number of offspring
    3
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    90 to 95 days
  • Range weaning age
    3 to 6 months
  • Range time to independence
    15 to 17 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    13 to 16 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    456 days
    AnAge

The thick gray mane that young cubs have on the nape, shoulders, and back appears to function as camouflage from predators. The infant hair disappears after 3 months of age after their mother no longer hides them and they begin to follow her. A short mane is retained into adolescence or longer for some individuals. Young cubs are hidden in a marsh, a rocky outcrop, or simply tall vegetation for protection from predators for an average of eight weeks, and may be carried to new hiding locations during the period as their mothers leave the cubs to hunt. Females with cubs may have to hunt successfully every day, whereas lone adults can afford to make kills every 2 to 5 days. (Caro, 1994; Krausman and Morales, 2005; Laurenson, 1993; Nowak, 1999)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • extended period of juvenile learning
  • inherits maternal/paternal territory

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of wild males is difficult to estimate due to the fact that they move to new areas often. The estimated minimum age at death of males observed was between 6 to 8 years of age. Territorial males tend to have better health conditions than nonresident males, and may be expected to live longer. There is no evidence suggesting that males in coalitions have a longer or shorter lifespan than solitary males. Females that survive to independence have a longer lifespan than males with an average age of 6.2 years. Males that reach independence have a minimum longevity of 2.8 years (Caro, 1994; Krausman and Morales, 2005)

Behavior

Territorial (resident) males mark the area that they defend with urine. In addition, males will also mark territory by raking the ground with their hind paws, claw at trees, flatten grass by rolling, or deposit feces on prominent land features. Territorial males are never classified in the adolescent age range. Resident males do leave their territories for brief lengths of time (a matter of days), presumably to seek out in-season females outside of their territory. Male coalitions commonly defend their territory from other males to facilitate access to females and prey, and often persist throughout the lifetime of the individuals in the coalition. While uncommon, unrelated males are occasionally admitted into an existing group of related males. Coalition partners that are related are extremely tolerant of close proximity, and spend much of their time within a few meters of other members if not physically touching or grooming each other. Nonrelated coalition members often endure aggression. Instances of play between the related members could turn violent if the nonrelated member came to join in. Nonrelated members also forgo much of the physical contact in which related members take part. After a period of time nonrelated members of a coalition will not act as aggressively as they did in the beginning. In territorial skirmishes between male coalitions, group size has the greatest influence in the outcome. This is reflected in the long lengths of tenure for larger coalitions in areas of strong competition. Single males rarely hold territories in vicinity of coalitions. (Caro and Collins, 1987b; Caro, 1994; Nowak, 1999)

Nonterritorial males (nonresidents or floaters) cover ground at a fast rate and are defined as nomads, often remaining in a single area for no more than a few days. Floater males urinate and defecate far less frequently than territorial males. These nonresident males typically consist of adolescents, single adult males that do not belong to a coalition, and old males. Behavioral differences between nonresidential and resident males are apparent in the nonresident males. Floaters showed sulking behavior, often moved after dark and rarely rest on land formations that would make them visible to resident males. In addition, posturing suggests that the nonresident males are not relaxed, as they spend a greater amount of time alert and sitting up when resident males can be observed reclining. That the body weight of nonresident males in comparison to residents is less aids these observations. (Caro and Collins, 1987b; Caro, 1994; Nowak, 1999)

Home Range

Population density of cheetahs varies from 1 individual per 20 sq. km. to 1 individual per 100 sq. km. Some home ranges have been reported to be between 50 and 130 sq. km. Cheetahs can be solitary or live in small groups, with the groups consisting either of a mother and her cubs, several related adult males, or male and female siblings shortly separated from their mother where the female has not yet come into estrus. Females employ a variety of movement patterns within their ranges, from traveling long distances in single stretches to remaining in a general area for several days. While the ranges of individual females overlap, they do not socialize. If females notice one another, they will sit and watch the other at distances of up to 2 km apart until one eventually walks away. This behavior is common with other female cats, as well, with the exception of domestic cats and lions. Females do not defend their territory, though they do scent mark by urinating or defecating. However, the presence of cubs will alter females movements depending the age of their cubs. (Caro, 1994; Nowak, 1999)

Communication and Perception

While uncommon, when members of a male coalition become separated, vocal calling (described as “yipps” and “churrs”) occurs for up to 20 minutes continuously until reunited with his partners. Females will also call to their cubs to locate them, especially if young cubs have wandered from their hidden lair. Scent marking, while not direct, is an important aspect of communication with cheetahs since they are predominantly asocial and females only meet other individuals when it is time to breed. (Caro, 1994)

Food Habits

Cheetahs have a carnivorous diet, of which a large portion includes gazelles, especially the Thomson’s gazelle. Their diet also includes impalas and other small- and medium-sized ungulates, as well as young large ungulates. Small animals, such as hares and birds, are also prey to cheetahs, especially when other animals are hard to obtain. When cheetahs are able to overtake their prey, the animal is usually knocked to the ground with the cheetah’s forepaws, and the cheetah proceeds to strangle the animal by seizing its throat with its jaws. Strangling is not unique to cheetahs, as many other felids use this technique to kill their prey. Unlike other cats, cheetahs do not ambush or stalk prey until it is well within springing distance. Instead, they charges from a distance around 70 to 100 meters away from the subject. Success rates are often more dismal if the charge begins from more than 200 m distance, and the chase can only be continued for a distance up to 500 m. The cheetah is one of the fastest terrestrial mammals, with reported maximum speeds ranging from 80 to 112 kilometers per hour. This velocity, however, cannot be maintained for more than a few hundred meters before the individual overheats. The majority of hunts end in failure. (Caro, 1994; Nowak, 1999)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals

Predation

Cheetah cub mortality is the highest for cats that are not hunted by humans. Lions, hyenas, and leopards have been documented killing cheetah cubs. There have been no direct observations of infanticide by cheetahs. Females have been observed in altercations with males within a short time range of losing cubs. It is presumed that if infanticide occurs among cheetahs, it is done with the purpose of ensuring that the mother will come into estrus. While other predators will kill adult cheetahs if the chance arises, most adults will flee predators. Lions and hyenas have been observed as kleptoparasites of cheetah kills, but the cheetah in question is usually unable to discourage parasitism and relents in favor of fighting for its meal. (Caro, 1994; Nowak, 1999)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

The role of cheetahs in their ecosystem is relatively unknown.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The cheetah was semi-domesticated for the purposes of hunting in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, and Assyria, and continued to be used for 4,300 years. More recently, cheetahs been used for hunting by European and Indian royalty, usually taken hooded like a falcon and then released when game was within sight. Cheetahs were favored over other hunting companions because if they tried to escape, they could be caught within a few hundred yards by a person on horseback. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • ecotourism
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

In Namibia and other regions of southern Africa, cheetahs are considered a pest and a serious danger to livestock, and are persecuted accordingly. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

The IUCN database lists cheetahs as a vulnerable species. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists the cheetah as endangered in all locations found, and has been on the endangered species list since the 2nd of June, 1970. Despite this, yearly quotas are permitted in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana of 50, 150, and 5 individuals, respectively. Genetic studies of cheetahs have shown that there is very little genetic variation within the species, possibly due to a severe bottleneck event during its evolutionary history. This leaves the cheetah extremely vulnerable to environmental disruption and disease. Cheetahs, when compared to other African cats, have a smaller success rate in hunting. Cheetahs “seem to work harder” (Nowak 1999) than other big cats, and so might be more vulnerable to environmental change from human disturbance than the other cats in the area. The people of Namibia and Zimbawe still persecute cheetahs today due to livestock losses, and they are shot for sport in regions of the Sahel. However, most of the countries where cheetahs are found protect the species. (Caro, 1994; IUCN, 1996; Nowak, 1999; US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1970)

Other Comments

The subfamily Acionychinae was formerly included in a monophyletic group, but new molecular evidence now clusters cheetahs (A. jubatus) with the cougar (Puma concolor) and jaguarundi (P. jagouaroundi) in the tribe Acinonychini, with a divergence estimated to be some 6.9 million years ago. (IUCN, 1996)

Contributors

Erin R. Lehnert (author), Michigan Technological University, Laura Podzikowski (editor), Special Projects.

Glossary

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
ecotourism

humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

induced ovulation

ovulation is stimulated by the act of copulation (does not occur spontaneously)

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

scent marks

communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

territorial

defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5? N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

References

Broom, R. 1949. Notes on the milk dentition of the lion, leopard and cheetah. Annals Transvaal Museum, 21: 183-185.

Caro, T. 1994. Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: group living in an asocial species. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Caro, T., D. Collins. 1987. Ecological characteristics of territories of male cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus). Journal of Zoology (London), 211: 89-105.

Caro, T., D. Collins. 1987. Male cheetah social organization and territoriality. Ethology, 74: 52-64.

Cuvier, , Geroges, Baron. 1978. The Class Mammalia volume 2. Washington, DC: Arno Press Inc..

Eaton, R. 1974. The cheetah. Reinhold, New York: Van Nostrand.

Eaton, R. 1982. The cheetah: the biology, ecology, and behavior of an endangered species. Malabra, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

IUCN, 1996. "Cat Specialist Group: Species Accounts: Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)" (On-line). Accessed November 21, 2011 at http://www.iucn.org/.

Kitchener, A. 1991. The natural history of the wild cats. London, United Kingdom.: Christopher Helm, A. and C. Black.

Krausman, P., S. Morales. 2005. Acinonyx jubatus. Mammalian Species, 771: 1-6.

Laurenson, M. 1993. Early maternal behavior of wild cheetahs: implications for captive husbandry. Zoo Biology, 12: 31-43.

Lydekker, R. 1895. A handbook to the Carnivora, Part I: Cats, civets, and mungooses. London, United Kingdom: W. H. Allen and Company.

Myers, N. 1975. The cheetah Acinonyx jubatus in Africa. International Union of the Conservation of Nature, 4: 9–90.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world, 6th edition. Baltimore, Maryland: .Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ortolani, , Alessia, T. Caro. 1996. The Adaptive Significans of Color Patterns in Carnivores: Phylogenetic tests of CLassic Hypotheses. Carnivore Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution, 2: 125-136.

Roosevelt, T. 1910. African Game Trails; an Account of the Wanderings of a Hunter-naturalist. New York, New York: New York Syndicate.

Turner, A. 1997. The big cats and their fossil relatives. New York: Columbia University Press.

US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1970. "United States Fish and Wildlife Service" (On-line). Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Environmental Conservation Online System. Accessed November 21, 2011 at http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=A00S.

Wack, R., L. Kramer, W. Cupps, P. Currie. 1991. Growth rate of 21 captive-born, mother-raised cheetah cubs. Zoo Biology, 10: 273-276.

Wilson, D., D. Reeder. 2005. Acinonyx jubatus. Mammal Species of the World, 3: 532-533. Accessed November 20, 2011 at http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3/browse.asp?s=y&id=14000006.

Wrogemann, N. 1975. Cheetah under the sun. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill.