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Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Felidae
Genus: Acinonyx
Species: jubatus
Binomial name
Acinonyx jubatus

The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is an atypical member of the cat family (Felidae) that hunts by sight and speed rather than by stealth. It is the only cat that cannot completely retract its claws (the genus name, Acinonyx, means "no-move-claw" in Greek, while the species name, jubatus, means "maned" in Latin, a reference to the mane found in cheetah cubs). Even when retracted, the claws remain visible and are used for grip during the cheetah's acceleration and manoeuvring.

The cheetah is the fastest known four-footed animal and can reach speeds of over 110 kilometers per hour (70 miles per hour), if only in very short bursts.

The cheetah's body is svelte and muscular, though it seems slender and almost fragile in build. Its chest is deep and its waist narrow. It has a small head and short muzzle, high-placed eyes, large nostrils, and small round ears. The fur of the cheetah is fauve yellow with round black spots. The adult animal weighs from 39 to 65 kg. Its total length is from 112 to 135 cm, while the tail can measure up to 84 cm.

Table of contents


The English word "cheetah" comes from Hindi chiitaa, which is perhaps derived from Sanskrit chitraka, meaning "the spotted one". Other major European languages use variants of the medieval Latin gattus pardus, meaning "cat-leopard": French guépard; Italian ghepardo; Spanish guepardo; and German Gepard.

Reproduction and social life

The females give birth to 3 to 5 cubs, after a gestation of 90 to 95 days. The cubs weigh from 150 to 300g at birth. They leave their mother between 13 and 20 months after birth. The cheetah can live over 20 years. Unlike other felines, the adult females do not have true territories and seem to avoid each other. Males sometimes form small groups, especially when they came from the same litter.


The cheetah is a carnivore, eating mostly mammals under 40 kg (gazelle, impala[?], gnu calf, hare). The prey is stalked to about ten meters' distance, then chased. A hunt is usually over in less than a minute and if the cheetah fails to make a quick catch, it will often give up rather than waste energy.


Cheetahs are found in the wild only in Africa, but in the past their range extended into northern India and the Iranian plateau, where they were domesticated by aristocrats and used to hunt antelopes in much the same way as is still done with members of the greyhound family.

The cheetah prefers to live in an open biotope, such as semi-desert, prairie, and thick brush.

Cheetahs have unusually low genetic variability and high abnormal sperm count. It is thought that they went through a prolonged period of inbreeding, perhaps when the species was nearly wiped out during an ice age or after an asteroid strike. They probably evolved in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), before migrating to Asia, and now extinct species include Acinonyx pardinensis (Pliocene epoch), much larger than modern cheetahs and found in Europe, India, and China; Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range; and Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), found in North America.

Economic importance for man

The cheetah's fur was formerly regarded as a status symbol. Today, the cheetah has a growing economic importance for ecotourism and they are also found in zoos. Because cheetahs are far less aggressive than other big cats, cubs are sometimes sold as pets. This is an illegal trade, because international conventions forbid private ownership of wild animals or species threatened with extinction.

Cheetahs were formerly hunted because many farmers believed that they ate livestock. When the species came under threat, numerous campaigns were launched to try to educate farmers and encourage them to conserve cheetahs.

Conservation status

Because cheetahs have unusually low genetic variability and high abnormal sperm count, there is a high mortality among cubs. Certain biologists now claim that they are too inbred to flourish as a species and suggest that they were nearly wiped out about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age, creating a genetic bottleneck[?]. Other researchers contest this theory and suggest that cheetahs first declined when man began to farm their habitats and hunt them.

Cheetahs are included on the IUCN list: vulnerable species[?] (African subspecies threatened, Asiatic subspecies in critical situation) as well as on the US ESA: threatened species[?] - Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).

Cheetahs in art and literature

  • In Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1523) the god's chariot is borne by cheetahs (which were used as hunting-animals in Renaissance Italy).

  • Cheetahs sometimes turn up as exotic pets, and one is portrayed as such in a piece of art deco sculpture in "polished chrome and ebony", circa 1925, from the Wiener Werkstätte[?] (the Vienna Workshops).

  • André Mercier's Our Friend Yambo (1961) is curious French biography of a cheetah adopted by a French couple and brought to live in Paris. It is seen as a French answer to Born Free[?] (1960), whose author, Joy Adamson, produced a cheetah biography of her own, The Spotted Sphinx (1969).

See also



  • Great Cats, Majestic Creatures of the Wild, ed. John Seidensticker, illus. Frank Knight, (Rodale Press, 1991), ISBN 0878579656.

  • Cheetah, Katherine (or Kathrine) & Karl Ammann, Arco Pub, (1985), ISBN 0668062592.

  • Cheetah Factsheet (http://www.csew.com/felidtag/pages/Educational/FactSheets/cheetah.htm)

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