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Cheetah Anatomy

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a large-sized feline inhabiting most of Africa and parts of the Middle East.



Subspecies of Cheetah

Some of the most commonly recognized subspecies include:

  • Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus)
  • Northwest African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki)
  • Acinonyx jubatus raineyii
  • Acinonyx jubatus jubatus
  • Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii
  • Acinonyx jubatus velox

General Information on the Cheetah

The adult cheetah weighs from 21 to 72 kg. Its total head-and-body length is from 110 to 150 cm, while the tail can measure 60 to 84 cm in length. Cheetahs are 66 to 94 cm tall at the shoulder. Males tend to be slightly larger than females and have slightly bigger heads, but there is not a great variation in cheetah sizes and it is difficult to tell males and females apart by appearance alone. Compared to a similarly sized leopard, the cheetah is generally shorter-bodied, but is longer tailed and taller (it averages about 90 cm tall) and so it appears more streamlined.

Fur

The coarse, short fur of the cheetah is tan with round black spots measuring from 2 to 3 cm across, affording it some camouflage while hunting. There are no spots on its white underside, but the tail has spots, which merge to form four to six dark rings at the end. The tail usually ends in a bushy white tuft. The cheetah has a small head with high-set eyes. Black "tear marks" running from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth keep sunlight out of its eyes and aid in hunting and seeing long distances. 

The king cheetah is a rare mutation of the cheetah characterized by a distinct fur pattern. 

Other rare color morphs of the species include speckles, melanism, albinism and gray coloration. Most have been reported in Indian cheetahs, particularly in captive specimens kept for hunting.

Skeleton and Muscles

The cheetah's chest is deep and its waist is narrow.

The cheetah's paws have semi-retractable claws, offering extra grip in its high-speed pursuits. The ligament structure of the cheetah's claws is the same as those of other cats; it simply lacks the sheath of skin and fur present in other varieties, and therefore, with the exception of the dewclaw, the claws are always visible. The dewclaw is much shorter and straighter than that of other cats.

Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run as fast as it does include large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake, and an enlarged heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During a typical chase, its respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute. While running, in addition to having good traction due to its semi-retractable claws, the cheetah uses its tail as a rudder-like means of steering to allow it to make sharp turns, necessary to outflank prey animals that often make such turns to escape.

Small and light weight bones: to give the cheetah less weight to carry.
Small collarbones: help lengthen the stride for fast acceleration.
Rigid pads: For better traction and for stopping.
Agile forelimbs: Have manipulatory capabilities to grasp the prey while still sprinting.
Flexible Spine: Acts as a spring to give the cheetah extra length for each stride.
Hindlimb bones: Are longer and heavier so the cheetah can take long strides so it can then increase its speed. They also enable the cheetah to have a long contact time on the ground to push off with stronger force as the rest of the body moves forward.
Muscle: The amount of muscle in the hip joint is also important to speed because the smaller the muscle, the smaller the swing inertia of the hindlimbs. The cheetah happens to have a very small amount of muscle there, so it can swing its hindlimbs at a fast rate.

Communication

The cheetah cannot roar, but ranks among the more vocal felids. Several sources refer to a wide variety of cheetah vocalizations, but most of these lack a detailed acoustic description which makes it difficult to reliably assess exactly what terms refer to exactly what vocalizations. A short review of the terminology encountered is found in. Some of the vocalizations listed in the literature are:

  • Chirping: When a cheetah attempts to find another, or a mother tries to locate her cubs, it uses a high-pitched barking called chirping. The chirps made by a cheetah cub sound more like a bird chirping, and so are termed chirping, too.
  • Churring or stuttering: This vocalization is emitted by a cheetah during social meetings. A churr can be seen as a social invitation to other cheetahs, an expression of interest, uncertainty, or appeasement or during meetings with the opposite sex (although each sex churrs for different reasons).
  • Growling: This vocalization is often accompanied by hissing and spitting and is exhibited by the cheetah during annoyance, or when faced with danger.
  • Yowling: This is an escalated version of growling, usually displayed when danger worsens.
  • Agonistic vocalizations: a combination of growls, moans, hisses and the "trademark" cheetah spit, which is most often accompanied by a forceful "paw hit" on the ground.
  • Purring: This is made when the cheetah is content, usually during pleasant social meetings (mostly between cubs and their mothers). A characteristic of purring is that it is realized on both egressive and ingressive airstream, as seen and heard on online video and audio.

Behaviour (Social, Reproductive, Hunting)

Social

Males are often social and may group together for life, usually with their brothers in the same litter; although if a cub is the only male in the litter then two or three lone males may form a group, or a lone male may join an existing group. These groups are called coalitions. In one Serengeti, 41% of the adult males were solitary, 40% lived in pairs and 19% lived in trios.

Males mark their territory by urinating on objects that stand out, such as trees, logs, or termite mounds. Males will attempt to kill any intruders, and fights result in serious injury or death.

Unlike males and other felines, females do not establish territories. Instead, the area they live in is termed a home range. These overlap with other females' home ranges, often those of their daughters, mothers, or sisters. Females always hunt alone, although cubs will accompany their mothers to learn to hunt once they reach the age of five to six weeks.

Unlike males, females are solitary and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to be formed for small periods of time. The cheetah has a unique, well-structured social order. Females live alone, except when they are raising cubs and they raise their cubs on their own.

Reproductive

Females reach maturity in twenty to twenty-four months, and males around twelve months (although they do not usually mate until at least three years old), and mating occurs throughout the year.

Females give birth to up to nine cubs after a gestation period of ninety to ninety-eight days, although the average litter size is three to five. Cubs weigh from 150 to 300 g at birth. Unlike some other cats, the cheetah is born with its characteristic spots. Cubs are also born with a downy underlying fur on their necks, called a mantle, extending to mid-back. Cubs leave their mother between thirteen and twenty months after birth. Life span is up to twelve years in the wild, but up to twenty years in captivity. 

The first eighteen months of a cub's life are important; cubs must learn many lessons, because survival depends on knowing how to hunt wild prey species and avoid other predators. At eighteen months, the mother leaves the cubs, who then form a sibling ("sib") group that will stay together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together for life.

Hunting

The cheetah is a carnivore, eating mostly mammals under 40 kg, including the Thomson's gazelle, the Grant's gazelle, the springbok and the impala. The young of larger mammals such as wildebeests and zebras are taken at times, and adults too, when cheetahs hunt in groups. Guineafowl and hares are also prey. While the other big cats often hunt by night, the cheetah is a diurnal hunter. It hunts usually either early in the morning or later in the evening when it is not so hot, but there is still enough light.

The cheetah hunts by vision rather than by scent. Prey is stalked to within 10–30 m, then chased. This is usually over in less than a minute, and if the cheetah fails to make a catch quickly, it will give up. The cheetah has an average hunting success rate of around 50%.

Running at very high speeds puts a great deal of strain on the cheetah's body. When sprinting, the cheetah's body temperature quickly elevates. If it is a hard chase, it sometimes needs to rest for half an hour or more.

The cheetah kills its prey by tripping it during the chase, then biting it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it; the cheetah is not strong enough to break the necks of most prey.

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