cheetah on grass field

Characteristics of cheetahs

Cheetahs are huge cats native to central Iran and Africa and are the fastest land animals with top speeds of 93 and 98 kilometers per hour. Its shoulder height ranges from 67 to 94 centimeters, and its full length (head and body) averages 1.1 to 1.5 meters. The average adult has a weight between 21 and 72 kgs. It has a spherical, small head, a short nose, and black teardrop-shaped stripes across its face, with a lean, lightweight body and long, slim legs. Acceleration can be improved thanks to specialized muscles that permit a more significant swing of the limbs. The pads of a cheetah’s paw are rigid and less spherical than those of other cats. The pads work like tire treads to provide traction when making quick, sharp bends. The small, blunt claws are more like a dog’s compared to other cats. Similar to the spikes on a pair of running shoes, the claws provide grip when running, allowing the individual to sprint faster.

Origin of the word ‘Cheetah’

The word “cheetah” is derived from a dialect spoken in northern India and Pakistan and translates to “variegated” or “the spotted one” in reference to the uneven spots that adorn the animal’s fur. Cheetahs have short, black, spherical ears on their backsides and two tear-like black lines extending from their eyes to their mouths. Cheetahs have roughly 2,000 black spots on their pale fur, each with a distinctive pattern that distinguishes them from other cheetahs. Scientifically, cheetahs are called Acinonyx jubatus. The scientific term Acinonyx jubatus is also associated with the morphology of the Cheetah; Acinonyx is a Greek term and pertains to the semi-retractable (motionless) claws, while jubatus is derived from the Latin and meaning crowned in reference to the Cheetah’s long neck hair. The coat can range in color from yellowish-brown to creamy white, and it is usually covered in dense black spots that are regularly spaced. The hair on a cheetah’s nape is thicker than elsewhere; this characteristic is especially apparent in cubs, whose mane spreads over the head, neck, and back. Historically, cheetahs were often referred to as “hunting leopards” since they could be domesticated and employed for coursing.

Scientific classification and naming

Daniel von Schreber gave the Cheetah its scientific name, Felis jubatus, in 1777, premised on a hide from the Cape of Good Hope. In 1828, Joshua Brookes recommended Acinonyx as the general term; in 1917, Reginald Pocock classified the cat within its subfamily, Acinonychinae, due to its remarkable morphometric likeness to the greyhound and substantial variance from normal felid characteristics. In subsequent taxonomic adjustments, the Cheetah was reclassified in the subfamily Felinae. There exists much misunderstanding in the taxonomy of cheetahs and leopards (Panthera pardus) since writers frequently confuse the two; some regard “hunting leopards” as a separate kind or equivalent to the leopard (Kitchener et al., 2017). The Felinae subfamily is a group of non-roaring cats. Although they cannot roar, they can purr. The cause of purring is an “imperfectly ossified hyoid and unbroken vocal folds.” This phrase alludes to the twiglike hyoid vertebrae in the neck, which hold the tongue and, when coupled with the capacity of Felinae to flex their larynx, make a purring effect.

Distribution in their habitat

Cheetahs tend to be less discriminating in their habitat selection than other cats and occupy a wide range of habitats; places with higher quantities of game, clear visibility, and little risk of encountering larger predators are favored. They are rarely found in humid rainforests. There have been reports of cheetahs at altitudes as high as 4,000 meters. Since the Cheetah must pursue and chase its food from a distance, an open region with some cover, such as scattered shrubs, is most likely appropriate. This reduces the likelihood of facing larger predators. In contrast to lions and leopards, cheetah populations are usually between 0.3 and 3.0 adults per 100 km2, 10–30% of those observed for leopards and lions.

Savannas such as the Serengeti and Kalahari are the most common habitats for cheetahs. Cheetahs occupy dry mountain ranges and gorges in the middle, northern, and western Africa. In the severe environment of the Sahara, they favor high elevations, which gather more precipitation than the adjacent desert. These highlands’ land cover and water supplies accommodate antelopes. Iranian cheetahs inhabit hilly desert terrain at altitudes between 2,000 and 3,000 meters, where mean annual rainfall is often less than 100 millimeters. The chief flora in these locations consists of thinly dispersed, less than one-meter-tall bushes.

Behavior and interaction with their habitats

Cheetahs are predominantly active throughout the day, whereas lions and other predators are predominantly active at night. These larger predators can attack and steal from cheetahs. In regions where they are sympatric, the daytime behavior of cheetahs allows them to evade carnivorous animals. Nighttime activity is more common in regions where the Cheetah is the dominant predator. This is possible in extremely arid locations like the Sahara. The moon cycle can also affect the cat’s schedule; on moonlit days, when prey is more visible, the cat may be more active, despite the risk of confronting larger predators. The primary activity during the day is hunting, with peaks at dawn and nightfall. After nightfall, groups relax in open grassy fields. Even while relaxing, cheetahs take turns keeping an eye out for game or larger predators. Cheetahs frequently use vantage positions, such as heights, to scan their surroundings for prey or predators.

Adaptive traits and characteristics

Cheetahs have developed numerous adaptations that boost their speed. Their limbs are proportionately longer than those of other large cats; an elongated spine increases their range of motion at high speeds; they have nonretractable claws, paw pads with increased grip, and a long tail for stability. Internally, the lungs, liver, adrenal glands, bronchi, nasal cavity, and heart are all built to accommodate vigorous physiological activity. During a pursuit, cheetahs take between 60 and 150 breaths each minute and approximately 3.5 strides each second. Hunts are often restricted to bursts of fewer than 200–300 meters as the elevated physiological activity involved with chasing prey generates heat quicker than the cooling effect can remove it. Therefore, cheetahs sweat through their paws.

Association with Humans

Since ancient times, the Cheetah has shown little animosity toward people and has been easily domesticated. Throughout humanity’s civilization, cheetahs have been a component of humanity in various ways, albeit their primary function appears to have been as hunters. They played key roles in religion, mythology, and hunting in Africa. This was especially true in northern Africa, where Egyptian culture featured prominently. The usage of cheetahs for hunting was especially prevalent in Asia, where leaders and royals of numerous nations frequently preferred them. In western Europe, they played these duties to a lesser degree. Although there are still locations where cheetahs have a cultural significance and are kept as pets, the primary relationship is one of conflict. Historically, the relationship between humans and cheetahs appears to have been primarily centered on adoration; nonetheless, the negative consequences led to the elimination of wild populations.

In 1829, the Zoological Society of London housed the world’s first Cheetah in a zoo enclosure. A significant mortality rate was observed in early confined cheetahs, whose average lifespan was only 3–4 years. Increased efforts to breed cheetahs in confinement were made when CITES was enforced in 1975, restricting the commerce of wild cheetahs (CITES, 2021). The death rate among captives is often remarkably high. Stillbirths, congenital deformities, cannibalism, dehydration, maternal negligence, and infectious illnesses are just a few of the causes of infant mortality causes. Cheetahs require specialized care since they are more susceptible to stress-induced disorders than other felids. 


Only about 7,100 wild cheetahs are left, and their survival is in jeopardy over much of their territory. Nearly 4,000 individuals constitute the largest demographic spread out over Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia. Around a thousand more make up a separate community in Kenya and Tanzania. Every other population of cheetahs consists of scattered clusters of less than a hundred individuals. It is feared that population levels are falling. While the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently classifies cheetahs as “Vulnerable” on its Red List of Threatened Species, scientists have recently called for an uplisting to “Endangered” due to dramatic population decreases. 

Threats facing cheetahs in their habitat

Other large predators do not view the adult Cheetah as prey but as competitors because it is the dominating predator in its habitat. Nevertheless, the Cheetah cubs are highly susceptible, especially when their mother is out hunting. They are spied upon by various creatures, including lions and hyenas, and huge aerial species, such as vultures and eagles.

Loss of habitat and population fragmentation are two of the main threats to the Cheetah; commercial land use, including agriculture and industry, is primarily to blame for destroying natural habitats. Ecological deterioration, such as bush encroachment, is frequent in southern Africa and adds to the problem. Additionally, the species’ small population concentrations suggest that it requires ample space to thrive. Competition with people and other large animals and a lack of available prey are additional severe dangers. It would appear that the Cheetah is less adaptable to human presence than the leopard. 76% of the Cheetah’s range is not protected, making it a prime target for farmers and herders in Namibia trying to safeguard their livestock. Another issue in some regions is illegally buying and selling endangered species. There have been reports that some indigenous communities, such as the Maasai of Tanzania, employ cheetah skins in rituals. An additional danger is the occurrence of roadkill, which is more common in places where highways have been built close to the natural habitat or protected areas.

Feeding habits and diet

The Cheetah has impressive eyesight and hence stalks its prey from a distance of 10 to 30 meters before pursuing it when the moment is right. Typically, cheetahs kill their prey in broad, open areas, but they drag it to a hiding spot to avoid other animals from scavenging it. The Cheetah must do this because it cannot consume its victim immediately because it is highly heated after the pursuit and requires time to cool off before it can eat. Cheetahs are carnivores, which means they only pursue and kill other animals to obtain the sustenance they require for survival. They hunt primarily large herbivores, such as Gazelle, and a variety of large Antelope species, such as Wildebeest, as well as Zebras and lesser mammals, such as Hares. However, the Cheetah’s specific diet is typically dependent on its locale.


Cheetahs and other cats were often slaughtered to safeguard livestock in Africa up until the 1970s. As knowledge of cheetah dynamics advanced, anxiety over the species’ declining population grew. To care for the untamed cheetahs that Namibian farmers frequently trapped or hurt, the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre was founded in 1971. The first significant study that outlined cheetah preservation tactics was underway by 1987. The Cheetah Conservation Fund was established in Namibia in 1990, and it promotes field research and cheetah awareness worldwide. The CCF is the only organization that conducts a cheetah genetics lab. The “Bushblok” effort seeks to restore ecosystems methodically through focused bush clearance and biomass utilization. Since then, new cheetah-specific conservation initiatives, like South Africa’s Cheetah Outreach, have been launched. The Global Cheetah Action Plan Workshop in 2002 emphasized raising awareness through education initiatives and the necessity of conducting a range-wide assessment of untamed cheetahs to delineate regions for preservation activities.