Known for its breathtaking speed and distinctive spots, the cheetah is the fastest land animal on Earth. From its tear-streaked face to its spotted coat, this lanky and athletic big cat has mastered camouflage. It has a body engineered to race through the grasslands to take down prey.
Unlike other big cats, cheetahs aren't always solitary and they never roar. In fact, they sound more like your friendly house cat and are even known to meow and purr. Explore the most interesting facts about this well-known speedster.
1. Cheetahs Are the World’s Fastest Land Mammal
Cheetahs are able to go from zero to 60 miles per hour (97 kph) in just three seconds. When racing at full speed, they cover about 21 feet (6 to 7 meters) with each stride. Their feet only touch the ground about twice during each stride, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. After a chase, the cheetah needs about 30 minutes to catch its breath before eating.
In 2012, 11-year-old cheetah Sarah from the Cincinnati Zoo broke her previous record, covering 100 meters at a peak speed of 61 mph (98 kph) in 5.95 seconds. Olympian Usain Bolt, who holds the (human) world record, is much slower by comparison: 100 meters in 9.58 seconds.
2. They’re Built for Speed
Cheetahs' incredible speed is a product of their body mechanics. They have a flexible spine that allows them to stretch and cover so much ground on each stride. Their long legs help them race fast and move over great distances. The cheetah also has a muscular, flat tail that functions almost like a boat’s rudder, helping them stay balanced and changed direction. Their semi-retractable claws act like cleats, helping the big cat gain traction when running, and their hard paw pads function like rubber on a tire.
3. Cheetahs Don’t Roar, They Meow and Purr
There’s nothing scary about the noises a cheetah makes. Unlike lions, which are known for their ferocious roars, cheetahs sound more like your average house cat. They meow and purr. They also make chirps and churring sounds. Listen to some of the chatty cheetahs from the Toronto Zoo.
There are four big cats that roar: lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars. They are able to make their intimidating noises because they have a ligament instead of the epihyal bone in the voice box, according to BBC Wildlife Magazine. The ligament stretches, creating lower sounds. Cheetahs have a fixed voice box with divided vocal cords. Like “small cats,” it allows them to purr but limits the noises they can make.
4. They’re Racing Toward Extinction
There were more than 100,000 cheetahs in 1900, but now there are fewer than 7,000 adult and adolescent cheetahs in the wild. Cheetahs are classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and they’re listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Cheetahs face threats from habitat loss, conflicts with humans, illegal trade, and reproductive issues due to their limited genetic diversity. When humans encroach on their territory, the big cats run out of space and run out of prey. That forces them to venture into farms and pasture, looking to livestock herds for food.
This isn't the first time that the cheetah population has been so precarious and scientists have worried that the species could go extinct. The big cat has faced two historic bottleneck events which drastically reduced its population size, according to a 2017 report in the Journal of Heredity. One event occurred 100,000 years ago and another about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In both instances, the population was greatly reduced, leaving the remaining cheetahs with potentially harmful mutations and a much smaller gene pool.
5. Their Eyes Help Them Hunt
Unlike most other big cats, cheetahs hunt in the daytime. They climb a termite mound or small hill and use their sharp vision to locate prey – then it's off to the races. The cheetah uses its lightning speed to go careening after its dinner, knocking the prey to the ground and then latching on to its throat.
Cheetahs have distinctive dark tear-mark lines that run from the corners of their eyes down to their mouth. These marks deflect the sun, making it easier for the cats to hunt during the day. Without the sun's glare, they're able to zero in on their targets, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
6. They Have Natural Camouflage
Cheetahs have spotted coats, which help them blend in with their surroundings. That not only helps them hide when they are stalking prey, but it also keeps them safe from predators, points out the National Zoo. The spots aren’t just fur-deep – their skin has black spots.
In addition to spots, cheetah cubs have what looks like a full-body mohawk. Called a mantle, this long bristle of hair runs from their neck down their back to the base of their tail. The Cheetah Conservation Fund explains that the mantle makes cubs look like honey badgers and helps them blend into tall grass. This camouflage protects them from predators like hyenas and lions.
7. Their Social Life Is a Mixed Bag
Except lions, which live in groups called prides, most big cats are relatively solitary animals. They prefer to be on their own except when mating or raising their young. Cheetahs are “neither solitary nor social but are a little of both,” says the San Diego Zoo.
Female cheetahs are mostly solo creatures. They only pair up to mate and then stick with their cubs while they are raising them. Males are usually solitary, but brothers will often live in groups called coalitions. Cheetahs hunt by themselves and avoid skirmishes except when fighting over mates.
8. Cheetahs Love Fast Food and Don't Drink Much
Cheetahs are carnivores that dine on small animals they can easily chase and kill. That includes smaller antelopes like Thomson’s gazelles and springboks, as well as rabbits, porcupines, and ground-dwelling birds, reports the San Diego Zoo. They eat the meat quickly before more aggressive predators like leopards, lions, baboons, jackals, and hyenas come upon their dinner and force them to give it up. They can even get chased away by vultures. Although cheetahs are fast, they’re not strong or aggressive enough to drag their meals very far away or guard them from these fierce competitors. Cheetahs only need to drink water every three or four days.