The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal and Africa’s most endangered big cat. Uniquely adapted for speed, the cheetah is capable of reaching speeds greater than 110 kilometers per hour in just over 3 seconds, and at top speed their stride is 7 meters long. With its long legs and very slender body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The cheetah’s unique morphology and physiology allow it to attain the extreme speeds for which it’s famous, and is often referred to as the greyhound of cats.
Built for Speed
The Cheetah’s unique body structure, long legs flexible spine, semi-retractable claws, and long tail allow it to achieve the unbelievable top speed of 110 km/hr. The body is narrow and lightweight with long slender limbs. Specialized muscles allow for a greater swing to the limbs increasing acceleration.
Spots and Stripes
Adult cheetahs are easily distinguished from other cats by their solid black spots. The color and spots are a form of camouflage which helps cheetahs hunt prey and hide form other predators. Until about three months of age cheetah cubs have a thick silvery-grey mantle down their back. The mantle helps camouflage the cubs by imitating the look of an aggressive animal called a honey badger. This mimicry may help deter predators such as lions, hyaenas, and eagles from attempting to kill them.
Feet and Claws
Cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws work which are considered semi-retractable are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.
Flexible Spine and Stride
The extreme flexibility of the Cheetah’s spine is unique. This allows for more extension during running, thus making both its stride length and speed possible. The shoulder blade does not attach to the collar bone, thus allowing the shoulders to move freely. And, the hips pivot to allow the rear legs to stretch further apart when the body is fully extended. These unique features allow the cheetah to achieve strides of up to seven meters with four strides completed per second. There are two times in one stride when the cheetah’s body is completely off the ground: once with all four legs extended and once with all bunched under the body.
The Cheetah’s long muscular tail works like a rudder, stabilizing, and acting as a counter balance to its body weight. This allows sudden sharp turns during high speeds chases. The tail is also thought to be a signaling device, helping young cubs follow their mothers in tall grass. The tip of the tail varies in color from white to black among individuals.
Distinctive black tear stripes run from the eyes to the mouth. The stripes are thought to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare. It is believed that they have the same function as a rifle scope, helping cheetahs focus on their prey.
Learn More About The Cheetah
Explore the About the Cheetah section to find out about its habitat in Namibia, the problems it faces in the wild, and the work CCF is doing to ensure the cheetah’s survival for generations to come.