Cheetahs are the fastest members of the cat family and the fastest mammals on land. A cheetah can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour (115 km/h) in as little as three seconds.
Cheetahs live mainly in the savannahs of Africa. They are slim and light. They have highly flexible spines that allow them to turn quickly as they sprint without losing balance. Cheetahs have long muscular legs and can reach strides of up to 23 feet (7 m).
Cheetahs use their extraordinary speed to hunt. Unlike other big cats that use their size and power to catch prey, cheetahs use speed. Cheetahs eat gazelles and small antelopes–also fast animals. They also eat the calves of larger hoofed mammals and ground-dwelling birds. When cheetahs catch up to their prey, they grip the victim’s throat until it stops breathing. Lions and tigers use their massive jaws and forelimbs to crush their prey.
Cheetahs have small, short-muzzled heads. Cheetahs grow up to 4.6 feet (1.4 m) long and weigh up to 160 pounds (72 kg). Their long, flexible backbones can stretch out and close tightly like a coiled spring. This increases their stride and speed. They have blunt claws that do not retract. The claws grip the ground as the cheetah runs. The cheetah’s long tail is used for balance and steering. Cheetahs have wide nostrils, large lungs, and large hearts which greatly aid them in quick sprints.
Cheetahs creep as close as possible to their prey then use their speed to make a kill. Cheetahs can only sustain fast sprints for about 20 seconds; then they must rest because they are so exhausted. Cheetahs make successful kills only about half of the time they attack. They usually eat their prey immediately to avoid having it stolen by hyenas and lions.
Cheetahs have distinctive black tear lines running from their eyes to their mouth; this is likely to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare and to help them focus on prey. Cheetahs hunt during the day usually in the morning or evening so as not to compete with lions and tigers who hunt at night.
Male cheetahs often band together to hunt in “coalitions” of 2 to 5 animals. Male cheetahs usually live apart from female cheetahs. Female cheetahs bear 2 to 6 kittens every 2 to 3 years. They raise their young alone. Cheetah cubs stay with their mother for the first 18 months. Cheetahs reach maturity at 3 to 4 years of age.
A cheetah’s lifespan is 15 to 20 years. The scientific name of the cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus.