Cheetah Adaptations Essay Contest

CCF News

In the 15th issue of CCF’s twice yearly print publication Cheetah Strides, we challenged readers to give us the specialized adaptations seen in three areas of the cheetah: face, tail and feet. Below are the submissions we received and they are all fantastic!

Jude Marxen

see banner above
Tail: For balance when running at full speed
Legs: For speed
Nose: For smelling prey

Ronak Shah

Face: The face of a cheetah is shaped for speed. There is no real neck. No one is really sure what the tear-marks are for but I think they are for reducing glare from the savannah sun. Cheetah’s noses are built for good smell. The teeth are made for ripping meat. The cheetah’s eyes are built for the savannah light.

Feet: The cheetah’s legs are very skinny to help them run fast. Cheetahs cannot retract their claws so this gives them the power to run instantly whenever they want to and not waste any time. Cheetahs feet are light and this helps them run fast. The spots on a cheetah make the cheetah appear blurry when they are running so a predator does not know what is running.

Tail: The tail is very helpful for running because it allows the cheetah to change directions very easily. It moves in the direction the cheetah wants to run. Unlike the body, cheetah’s tails have rings. (I’m not sure why cheetah’s tails have rings: maybe to identify they are different from leopards?).

Answer to Ronak’s question: Cheetah tail and coat patterns have developed to help them blend in with their surroundings. Cheetahs patterns and spot shape are very distinct from leopards. They have very different behaviors and developed spot patterns over time that more effectively support these behaviors. More successful individuals lived and carried forward the genes for beneficial coat patterns and now those markings are what we see.

Madison Hensley

Face: The cheetah has black streaks running from the corners of their eyes all the way to their nose help them see on a sunny day. It helps with the glare and keeps the sun out of their eyes. Football players cleverly copied this to help them win a game. The cheetah also has a very sensitive nose. It can scent markings left by other cheetahs, warning them to stay off of their turf. Scent is as important as the other senses, as it can detect things that are out of sight.

Feet: Their feet are hard and less curvy than those of other cats, helping them make sharp turns. Unlike other cats, cheetahs do not have retractable claws. They do not need the sharp claws they would obtain if they kept them retracted. They would dig into the dirt, causing the cheetah to trip. Instead, they always keep them out, allowing them to become dull and serve as cleats, like those of a soccer player.

Tail: The tail is used mainly for balance and turning. It’s a lot like a rudder on a boat. Whenever they need to turn, they’ll swing their tail to the opposite direction. This allows them to do it very fast, making them deadly.

Reginald James Humphrey

A Cheetah can attain speeds over 60 mph, making it one of the most successful hunters on the savanna. It’s physical adaptations allow a cheetah to use that speed with optimal efficiency when chasing down prey.

Let’s begin with the cheetah’s face/head. It’s small and flat – aerodynamically suited offering little wind resistance as a cheetah slashes through space. Wide nostrils allow for maximum oxygen intake: chasing down prey expends a lot of energy, and a cheetah needs maximum oxygen intake not only during the chase, but also afterwards to help aid in recovery. A cheetah’s head remains steady during the chase, and has eyes equipped with binocular vision.

A cheetah has a flexible spine and its long tail moves at ease from side to side. The length serves as a counterbalance similar to a rudder to help it maintain balance allowing the cheetah to quickly and easily change direction at high speeds as needed without losing pace during the pursuit.

A cheetah has small feet, with semi-retractable claws – not unlike the cleats that a human athlete uses, to allow for quick maneuvering and directional changes on the field.

These are a few of the adaptations that cheetahs have that make them – the most dynamic athletes of the animal world – such a joy to watch as they run.

Ettore Semeghini

It’s 6 o’clock. The sun is almost setting when an odor crosses the hot dirt and finds the broad nostrils of a cheetah. Its eyes, placed on a face designed to hunt, focus on an inattentive gazelle and a second later its whole body begins to position itself to do what thousands of years of evolution have prepared it for: run!

When its paws touch the ground, semi retractable claws dig deep into the sand and grass, boosting its structure to more than 60 miles per hour with large strides and nothing will stop it, for she and its offspring depend on it.

Suddenly, the gazelle makes an unexpected 90-degree turn, but using its long tail as a rudder, the cheetah wields its entire body, following the movement almost instantaneously. At the end, a tap on the hips of the gazelle takes it to the ground, and the hunt is complete. The sun sets on the horizon. Just another day in the savanna.

Amy L. VanLew


A healthy ecosystem requires balance between predators and prey. Cheetahs are one of Africa’s main predators, and are thus very important to their ecosystems. However, cheetahs would not be the predators they are if they did not possess some very important adaptations.

Adaptations of the Cheetah

An ecosystem is a network of organisms that interact with each other. One of the most important interactions in an ecosystem is the predator-prey relationship. In the absence of predators, prey animals would become overpopulated, and strip the land of vegetation, causing the habitat to be uninhabitable. Cheetahs are one of Africa’s most successful predators, which makes them a vital component of their ecosystem. Cheetahs possess many adaptations that allow them to be prosperous hunters. An adaptation is a genetic change that a species undergoes to help it better suit the habitat in which it lives. Adaptations can include both behavioral and structural changes, an example of the former being migration patterns, while the development of camouflage is an example of the latter (Rutledge et al., 2011). Cheetahs possess many structural adaptations, including their faces, feet, and tails.

Face: The cheetah’s large eyes give this species fantastic vision which excels over their sense of smell (Cheetah, n.d.). This outstanding eyesight enables these predators to hunt during the day, while other big cats prefer to hunt at night (Katie, 2009). This is beneficial for cheetahs because larger predators, such as lions, often steal their prey; hunting at different times prevents a portion of this thievery. Apart from being large, cheetah’s eyes are unique in the fact that they are located high up on their faces. This enables the big cats to see over tall grass without revealing much of their bodies (Fitzgerald & Alsaffer, 2008). Remaining concealed is crucial when stalking prey, for it allows cheetahs to get very close to their targets before they begin their chase. It is also imperative that cheetahs maintain focus on their prey while they are chasing them. This would not be possible if these big cats did not have tear lines, which are black streaks

that run from the inner edges of cheetah’s eyes down to the corners of their mouths. These lines further improve cheetah’s vision, for they protect the predator’s eyes from the harsh glare of the sun (Cheetah, n.d.).
One of the most impressive facial adaptations of the cheetah is not on the cat’s face at all, but rather inside of it. The nasal passages of cheetahs are significantly larger than those of other cats. Oversized airways such as these allow cheetahs to inhale great amounts of oxygen while they run which helps them maintain their speed, as well as recover from their chase in a timely manner. Due to the fact that cheetah’s nasal passages are so large, their teeth have very little room to take root. The result of this is smaller teeth with smaller roots that function just as efficiently as the large teeth of other cats (Cheetah Spot, n.d.).

Feet: The paws of cheetahs possess multiple adaptations, all of which aid these cats while running. One of the most obvious adaptations of cheetahs paws would be the fact that their claws are semi-retractable, meaning that they cannot be fully tucked into the cat’s feet. Cheetah’s claws act as built in cleats, providing them with excellent traction while running (Cheetah, n.d.). It is common knowledge that cheetahs have four of these semi-retractable claws on each of their feet, but many individuals are not aware that these big cats possess a fifth claw, called a dew claw, or a thumb claw. Unlike the four forward-facing claws, the dew claw is located at the back of the foot, and is positioned slightly higher on the leg. The dew claw is highly adapted for hooking onto and bringing down cheetah’s prey (Cheetah Spot, n.d.). Another scarcely known adaptation can be found on the bottom of the cheetahs front two feet. These big cats have pointed pads that they slam into the ground to help the cats stop when they are running at top speeds (Lions, n.d.).

Tail: When observing many species of big cat, an individual may take note that their tails are typically round and fluffy. The same however, cannot be said for cheetahs, whose tails are long and somewhat flattened (Lions, n.d.). This unusual length and shape allows the tail to act much like a rudder on a boat. It helps cheetahs to maintain balance when running at top speeds and execute sharp turns with ease (Fitzgerald & Alsaffer, 2008).


Each adaptation of the cheetah is vital to this species survival and success as a predator.

Cheetahs would not be the hunters they are if it weren’t for their structural adaptations. Their faces, feet, and tails allow them to play their role in the ecosystem effectively, and in turn, maintain a healthy and balanced habitat.


Alsaffer, A., & Fitzgerald, J. (2008). Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Retrieved from Tree of Life Web Project website:
Cheetah. (n.d.). Retrieved from DesertUSA website:
Cheetah. (n.d.). Retrieved from Lions website: Katie. (2009, July 10). Cool cheetah adaptations #9: Eyes. Retrieved from Houston Zoo

Rutledge, K., McDaniel, M., Boudreau, D., Ramroop, T., Teng, S., Sprout, E., . . . Hunt,

J. (2011, January 21). Adaptations. Retrieved from National Geographic website:
Teeth and claws/paws. (n.d.). Retrieved from Cheetah Spot website:

Igal Gabbay

Feet:Unlike all other big cats, and as suggested by their genus name (Acinonyx, meaning “non- moving claws”), cheetahs have weakly retractile claws without a protective sheath of skin. The absence of protection makes the claws blunt. This enables cheetahs to use their claws as running spikes to improve grip while chasing prey. The tough foot pads are adapted to running on firm ground. In addition, ridges that run along the foot pad act like the tread on car tyres. The curved dewclaw is strong and sharp and helps cheetahs knock their prey off its balance by inserting the dewclaw into the prey’s hide and pulling back.

Face: The shortened face of the cheetah possibly reduces the weight of the head, which enhances speed. The large nasal passages allow enough air to flow fast. This is important during the chase when the respiratory rate is high, and helps the cheetah to recover quickly after the chase. The ‘tear lines’, streaks that run from the corner of the eyes down to the nose and mouth, may shield the eyes from the sun’s glare. This can assist cheetahs in their hunts which are mainly conducted during the day.

Tail: The lengthy muscular tail contributes to the cheetah’s incredible manoeuvrability. It is used as a rudder: The cheetah shifts the tail from one side to another to provide a greater torque in that direction and thus shifts the momentum in the required direction, allowing it to change direction at high speeds. Fast turns and braking are necessary when chasing antelopes that zig-zag, sometimes between trees and shrubs.

Cheryl Bales

I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Dr. Laurie Marker not once, but twice while I still lived in the California Peninsula area. I was invited by a friend to see a live Cheetah presentation each time. Since then, Cheetah’s have found their way into my heart in a profound way. They are fascinating in so many ways. I will have a great time writing what I have learned about their adaptations.

The Cheetah’s face markings:

The black facial markings from the corner of the eye and ending at the mouth is believed to reduce the glare from the sun. Cheetahs are unlike other big cats because it hunts primarily during they day. Another reason for the “tear marks”, Cheetahs move so quickly and make such extreme moves while hunting, they can’t loose site of their prey. Almost the same principal as football players use on the field. They put black marks under their eyes to help with the glare of the sun to see the ball. I like the Zulu tale best. A lazy hunter saw a mother Cheetah easily take down a Springbok while hunting for her cubs. The Zulu hunter figured out if he could have a Cheetah for himself, the Cheetah could hunt and do all the work. So while the mother Cheetah was away from the den, he stole all three of her cubs. The mother Cheetah returned and saw he cubs were missing.

She was so sad and distraught she cried and cried all night. The next morning the tears stained her face with dark streaks and they never went away. A local villager heard her crying and went to investigate. He found that the lazy Zulu hunter had stolen her cubs to use as hunters for him. The Zulu hunter also broke a tradition of the tribe. The villager went and told the tribal elders the story of what happened. The hunter was driven from the village and the kind villager took the three cubs back to their mother. But alas, the tears stained her face forever. The Cheetah wears the tear marks as a reminder that it’s only honorable to hunt in the traditional way. Scientists call the tear marks “malar marks.” The tear marks are also believed to “accentuate facial expressions”, for social interactions with other Cheetahs. Kind of like recognizing your neighbors or friends.

Cheetahs also have a small aerodynamic head with very large nostrils. Since they run in spurts up to 70 miles an hour, they need the extra air (oxygen) to reach their heart and lungs. They can only do so in a limited time usually no longer than a minute. Their heart and lungs are larger than normal to accommodate the extreme speed. If you look carefully at a Cheetah face, the nose takes up a large part of it. Cheetahs eyes are unique in the cat world as well. The Cheetah is the only cat to have round pupils. Also a fact that the Cheetah hunts mostly during the day even though it is considered diurnal. Cheetahs have a patch of “highly light-sensitive” cells on the retina. These cells provide the cats with precise visual perception to spot prey over great distances. Very similar to birds of prey.

Cheetahs feet adaptations:

Cheetahs have large pads and semi non-retractable claws. Cheetahs are the only cats that have semi non-tractable claws. The pads on their feet are like hard rubber to withstand the sprinting. Larger cats pads are soft. Most big cats (Lions, Tigers, Leopards, Jaguars, Cougars), use their claws to bring down prey. They don’t run as fast as the Cheetah and

have bigger feet, longer claws, and more body mass to pull larger animals than the Springbok down. The Cheetah has a unique niche in the wild. It uses it great speed to catch prey. Their claws are used for traction to dig into the earth to obtain the speed needed to catch small antelope. They are similar to human sprinters shoes with cleats to dig down and get better traction. As they are maneuvering with the prey, they also make quick turns and those claws help to make it happen. Unlike the “big cats” the Cheetah usually knocks prey down Cheetahs are built for speed with their fine bones, slim body profile and very flexible spine.

Cheetahs Tail functions:

Along with the Cheetahs claws, the tail is necessary tool for maneuvering. For the quick twists and turns chasing down prey, the tail acts as a rudder and counter balance of the body for steering. It is very muscular and is flat in shape as well as long. American Cougars also have a long tail but it’s mostly used for jumping counter balancing. If the Cheetah didn’t have this unique tail, at fast speed turns it would fall over! I think another function of a mom Cheetahs tail is for entertainment. Cubs will practice “pouncing” on mom’s tail for prey practice. This can go on for quite some time.

I am hoping the Cheetah Conservation has continuing success working with farmers. I am deeply grateful for all the work Dr. Marker has done to promote awareness to the public on Cheetah welfare.

Kimberly Cotter

The cheetah has a lot of physical adaptations that make it one of the most successful hunters on the savannah. Although there are others besides those discussed here, we will focus mainly on the face, feet and tail in this essay.

In the face area, the first adaptation is the whiskers. Because the cheetah hunts primarily by day and not so much by night as the bigger cats do, they have less need for really long whiskers. Next, their eyes work together to give one good single image they can focus well with. These eyes are large on a flat face with a small muzzle to see over. The black tear stains that run from the inside corners of their eyes have double duties. They reflect the sun and prevent damage to the eyes as well as help distinguish these cats from their leopard cousins. Wide nostrils help the cheetah breathe easy not only during the sprints they must run to catch their prey (which can take them up to sixty-five miles per hour), but help while in the process of eating their prey as well. They have small sharp teeth to kill and eat their antelope-type prey with. Because they are smaller cats on the savannah and solo hunters, their prey are the smaller prey than the bigger cats go after as well. One bite to the neck usually does the job.

The feet also have adaptations to make things easier. They are long and slender and work in tandem with the legs. The foot pads on the bottoms of the feet are harder and less round than other cats. On the back of each front foot is a pointed pad that acts as a type of a brake pad for the cat. At the end of each foot are semi-retractable (meaning that they only come back in part way) claws which grip the ground when the cat runs. This gives the cat traction. All of this helps in chasing jumping and turning prey.

The tail is really unique as it acts like a stabilizer or a rudder for the cheetah. It is a long, flat and muscular thing of beauty. It counteracts the cheetah’s body weight and keeps it from rolling over or spinning out during a chase. Other ways it is helpful is as a brake and a fly swatter as well as a guide for cubs through the tall grasses. Covering the tail as well as all the other parts talked about is the tan or pale fur with darker spots. This camouflage helps hide the cheetah from prey and predators. There is a variation of the fur pattern which is a mutation that is called the “King Cheetah”. A lot goes into the making of cheetahs and they are very special.

James Krosschell

Face: A cheetah’s “tear marks” stop the sun shining in its face while it’s
hunting. It is also to spot prey that is miles away. The cheetah’s “tear marks”go from the corner of its eyes to its mouth. Cheetahs also have great noses, they have large nasal passages that help the cheetah breathe while running at high speeds.

Tail: A cheetah’s tail is for helping on tight turns while chasing after a gazelle. So I’m saying, that a gazelle can’t juke out the cheetah. The reason the cheetahs tail can keep the cheetah balanced is that the cheetah has a lot of muscles in its tail.

Legs: A cheetahs legs are long so that it can have long strides. Their strides measure up to 7 meters (21 feet). Nearly the length 2 SUVs. A cheetahs claws do not retract like those of a lion or leopard, but they do also help on tight turns. They also help with traction when chasing after prey.


Traction: When something digs into the ground, like cleats, it makes the thing go faster.

Nasal passages: Something in an animal’s nose that helps it breathe.

Retract: When a big cat can pull its claws into its sheaths.

Sheaths: Something in a cat’s feet to put its claws in.


Thanks for reading this document. I hope you liked it. Bye!

About the author

My name is James Krosschell, I am 8 years old. I live in Michigan. I have studied cheetahs since I was 6. I am in 3rd grade in a spanish immersion program. I’d like to work in CCF sometime when I’m older. I have 2 younger brothers and 1 younger sister.

Dave Schaffer

Face: To help get enough oxygen during their high speed chases, they are aided by small heads, flat faces, reduced muzzle lengths, enlarged nostrils, large nasal passages and extensive air-filled sinuses.

Feet: Although their paws are very narrow compared to other cats, they are adapted to help during their high speed chases. They have non-retractable, blunt claws that are only slightly curved, and act as spikes, and foot pads that are very hard and ridged to increase traction. The ridges are pointed forwards which helps for quick turns and rapid breaking.

Photos taken by Dave Schaffer at the CCF in 2004

They also have a “thumb” claw, or dew claw, is positioned back of the other four and higher. This claw is used to hook prey during the chase.

Interestingly, cheetahs are actually named for their dew claw. Their scientific name, Acinonyx, was coined in 1828 by Joshua Brooks from the Greek words “akaina”, which translates as “thorn” or “goad”, and “orux” which means “claw”.

Tail: Their long and muscular tails are used for balancing and prevent rolling over and spinning out in quick, fast turns during a high speed chase. In addition, the last third of the tail has a series of black rings. These tail rings are distinctive on each cheetah and enable individual identification.

By: CCF Staff