Today is International Cheetah Day. For this reason, I figured the world's fastest land mammal would be a great topic for this week's Field Notes entry. Throughout my childhood in Africa, they were easily my favourite animal.
Cheetahs are large cats mainly living in sub-Saharan Africa, but there are wild populations as far north as central Iran. When we call cheetahs "large," though, it's all relative. Cheetahs will stand at about 1 m (39 in) at the shoulder and weigh between 21 and 72 kg (46-159 lbs). Compared to other feline predators like leopards and lions, cheetahs are the smallest of the bunch, but they are larger than the caracal and serval, or African wild cats. However, these aren't the only species that the cheetah has to compete with, but more on that in a minute.
The cheetah normally hunts smaller antelope of the African savanna, taking prey like impala, blesbok, and springbok. This is because, to have the acceleration and speed that the cheetah does, it needs to be very light. The cheetah does not have the bulk of a lion or leopard to help it bring down prey. Instead, to hunt, the cheetah stalks its prey until it gets within about 70 metres of its mark before making itself known. One reason is that while the cheetah can run exceptionally fast, it can only run at that speed for a short amount of time. So then the question becomes, why doesn't the cheetah just sneak right up to its prey, almost like the leopard? Well, the answer to that is the fact that the cheetah is such a light animal, relatively speaking, at least. It has to get its prey running away in order to be able to take it down. When the prey is running as fast as it can, the cheetah relies on a move known in rugby as an ankle-tap. The cheetah will try to catch up with the terrified prey and hit one of its legs so that the prey then trips over itself and falls. When going at high speed, this will generally cause the prey to roll over and slide as it comes to a stop. At this point, the prey is stunned and the cheetah can have an easier time as it sticks its mouth over the prey's muzzle. This prevents the exhausted antelope from breathing, which eventually leads to the prey's demise.
However, while this might be the end of the line for the prey, it is certainly not the end for the cheetah, and suddenly time becomes of the essence. The cheetah, being as light and lithe as it is, is not able to defend its kill from much more than an aggressive jackal and will often have its meal stolen by lions or hyenas. So before these enemies show up, the cheetah eats as much of the kill as it can before other predators show up.
An interesting characteristic about the cheetah is that while other cats can extend their claws, the cheetah's claws are naturally extended. This helps with grip when they are chasing down their prey. We have talked about this previously in another field note called Feline Claw Fallacies.
Another thing I absolutely love about the cheetah is that you can get a mutation where they are hypermelanistic. This means that they have more black pigment than the average cheetah. This extra black pigmentation seems to centre around more spots, which means the spots turn into stripes. While these variants are rare, they are referred to as "king cheetahs."
What do you think? Do you prefer regular cheetahs or the king cheetah?
Happy International Cheetah Day!