In honor of International Cheetah Day (December 4), Panthera’s team of wild cat experts has answered some of your most frequently asked questions about cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) behavior and conservation.
How are cheetahs able to run so fast?
As the fastest land animals on the planet, cheetahs can reach speeds of up to 112 km/h or 70 mph. Cheetahs are physically adapted for running:
They have a tall, slim frame that includes long legs, a small head and a long tail.
A cheetah’s collarbones are modified to allow for longer strides when running.
Their canines are smaller in proportion to those of other big cats to allow for elongated nasal passages which provide more oxygen to sustain their high-speed chases.
Cheetahs also have unique claws that are only partially protractible and missing the typical protective sheaths found in those of other cats.
How can you tell a cheetah’s fur from that of a leopard or a jaguar?
At first glance, it may be difficult to tell these three big cats apart since they all have pale fur with dark spot-like patterns. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to figure out if you’re looking at a cheetah. That’s because while jaguars and leopards both sport round rosettes (circles with hollow insides), cheetahs are instead covered in thousands of solid spots interspersed with smaller “dabs.” Each cheetah’s coat pattern is entirely unique, something that helps researchers identify individuals.
What is the greatest threat to cheetahs?
There are estimated to be only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, and these big cats are listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. According to Dr. Kim Young-Overton, KAZA Program Director, habitat loss and fragmentation is the greatest threat to cheetahs with the species reduced to living in only nine percent of their historical range. A staggering 77% of what’s left lies outside of protected areas where human-wildlife conflict, loss of prey and low ability to recolonize substantially contribute to an ongoing decline in these big cats. Targeted poaching for their skins and other body parts is also reducing cheetah numbers across their range.
Do cheetahs usually attack livestock?
Unlike lions, which frequently clash with cattle owners, cheetahs are not aggressive livestock hunters. However, they have been known to take goats and sheep which has led to some people killing these big cats in anticipation of possible conflict.
What sounds do cheetahs make?
Like all cats, cheetahs are capable of hissing, spitting, snarling, and growling. Unlike other big cats like lions and jaguars, cheetahs cannot roar. Instead, they have a unique vocalization known as a churr- a high-intensity gurgle used to communicate with other cheetahs usually during mating or other friendly encounters. Also unlike other big cats, cheetahs do not have a specific call that they use to mark their territory. Instead, they are known to yip as a form of long-distance communication within social groups.
Why are cheetahs considered big cats?
Traditionally the big cats were considered just those in thePanthera genus (lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and jaguars). However, despite belonging to their own genus (Acinonyx), cheetahs, as well as pumas, are also considered big cats. This not only because all seven of these big cats are substantially larger than those felines classified as small cats, but because they have similar distribution, habitat requirements and ecological roles. According to Dr. Wai-Ming Wong, Director of Panthera’s Small Cats Program, all big cats act as apex predators, have large home ranges and traditionally hunt big game.
What does a cheetah’s tongue feel like?
Kaplan Grantee Anna Kusler says, “All cat tongues -- big cats and little cats -- are rough and feel similar.” The rough sensation from cat tongues come from papillae or tiny backward-facing barbs. These papillae help felines not only when devouring prey carcasses, but also for grooming as well.
A King Cheetah is not a different species, rather it is a term used to describe those individuals who exhibit distinctive blotches and stripes in their coat thanks to a genetic mutation. These individuals are rare since the coloring comes from a recessive allele. Kusler adds, “There’s nothing ecologically different or special about them. They've just got fancier spots.”
What is Panthera doing to protect cheetahs?
Panthera’s Cheetah Program aims to protect cheetahs by addressing direct threats to them, their prey base and their habitats. To do this, Panthera gathers critical ecological data by surveying and monitoring populations and their prey, collaborating with local law enforcement officials and partners and working with local communities to mitigate conflict and create cheetah-positive landscapes within communities.
Since cheetahs roam over such large areas made up of both protected and unprotected lands, Panthera is working directly and with partners across massive landscapes to protect important populations from the myriad of threats they face across their range. Dr. Young-Overton explains, “Treating these landscapes as one management unit, we directly protect cheetah by supporting wildlife authorities in removing poachers and their snares from national parks. We also work to reduce cheetah, and other carnivore, persecution by helping build predator-proof corrals meant to reduce human-wildlife conflict in communal lands. In addition, we work with communities across open non-protected landscapes to develop livelihoods that embrace the presence of cheetah while promoting actions that disturb illegal wildlife trade markets.