Cheetah

Acinonyx jubatus

SUBFAMILY

Acinonychinae

TAXONOMY

Felisjubata (Schreber, 1775), South Africa. Two subspecies, African cheetah (Acinonyx j. jubatus) and Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx j. venaticus). The king Cheetah, a mutant form with spots along the spine joined together into stripes, was formerly incorrectly described as a separate species, Acinonyx rex. Cheetahs show a very low level of genetic variation, suggesting they all descend from a very small population bottleneck 10,000 years ago.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

French: Guépard; German: Gepard; Spanish: Guepardo, chita. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Length 44-53 in (112-135 cm); tail 26-33 in (66-84 cm); weight 86-143 lb (39-65 kg). Slight physique, long legs, small head and deep, narrow chest built for speed. Flexible spine increases stride length, non-retractile claws give traction, and long tail helps balance the animal when running. Most claws are blunt, but prominent dew claws used to trip running prey are sharp. Coat is tawny, with small, round black spots. "Tear stripes" on face.

DISTRIBUTION

Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Iran. HABITAT

Savanna, dry forest. Ideal habitat includes some cover, or broken ground.

BEHAVIOR

Adult females solitary except when with cubs, males solitary or in small coalitions (usually related). Females are nomadic,

ranging over areas up to 560 mi2 (1,500 km2). Some males territorial, urine marking and defending a territory of around 5-60 mi2 (12-150 km2). Other males nomadic, roaming over areas of up to 300 mi2 (780 km2). Nomads may gain territories, especially if they form a coalition, or may remain nomadic all their life. Population density ranges from 1 per 80 mi2 (200 km2) to 1 per 2.5 mi2 (6 km2) linked to prey availability and competition from other predators.

Scent marking is the most important form of communication for male and female cheetahs. Mothers and cubs communicate with chirping or yelping calls. Cheetahs also snarl, growl and hiss in anger or fear, and purr in contentment.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Diet mainly medium-sized antelope, also hares and small mammals. Hunt in daytime, stalking to within 100 ft (30 m) before sprinting at prey. Capable of speeds of at least 60 mph (95 kph), but cheetahs have little stamina and after 550 yd (500 m) are exhausted. Most chases last only 20-60 seconds and rarely exceed 200 yd (190 m). About half are successful. Prey killed by suffocating throat-hold. Cheetahs are often driven off kills by larger predators.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Polygamous. Breed year round, but mating peaks after rains. Females advertise estrous by scent marking. Gestation 90-98 days, litter size one to six (usually three or four). Cubs are kept hidden until eight weeks old, then accompany the mother and start on solid food. Weaned after 3-4 months, but dependent on mother until 14-18 months. Cubs mortality is very high—two thirds do not reach independence, more where other large predators, the main cause of infant mortality, are numerous. After independence cubs stay together for six months, then females leave to live a solitary life, while brothers stay together for life.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. African population estimated at below 10,000 breeding adults. Habitat loss, prey depletion and human persecution are the main threats. The Iranian and North African populations are Critically Endangered, with as few as 250 remaining. Cheetahs formerly ranged through the Near East into India, where they became extinct in 1950s.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Cheetahs are not dangerous to man, but do take livestock, especially where natural prey levels are reduced, and they are persecuted by farmers. However, in Namibia, cheetahs have benefited from the removal of lions and hyena from cattle ranches. Cheetahs do not flourish where lions are numerous, as lions prey on cubs and steal kills, so formal reserves are often not ideal for cheetah conservation. Controlled trophy hunting has been allowed to encourage farmers to conserve cheetah. Other conservation efforts include using guard dogs to protect stock. ♦

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