How Fast Are Cheetahs, and Other Fascinating Facts About the World’s Quickest Cat

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It’s dawn in the savanna, and its inhabitants are already starting to stir. Giraffes are munching on the tops of trees, and gazelles are ambling through the shrub-spotted grasslands. Elephants are trampling the thirsty turf, sending sprays of dust into the dry savannah air, and buffalos are bent with their snuffling snouts to the ground.

Rarely are any of these grazing animals alone, at this time of day or any other. And though they typically travel in herds, including tens to hundreds to thousands of other individuals, their herdmates aren’t always their only company. There’s always a chance that powerful predators are lurking nearby, whether lions or leopards or the world’s fastest felines: the cheetahs.

Compared to some of the other cats of the savanna, cheetahs may not seem like much of a threat. Their bodies are smaller and sleeker, their teeth are tinier, and their claws are shorter and blunter than those of a lion or leopard. But the cheetahs’ special weapon is not their strength, but their speed.

Fast Facts About Cheetahs

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Cheetahs are structured for sprinting. A svelte, spotted cat, cheetahs are characterized by their long-legged, long-tailed bodies and their light bones. Their lanky build means that they’re agile and aerodynamic. Their tough paw pads and grippy claws are made to grab at the ground, and their large nasal passages and lungs facilitate the flow of oxygen and allow their rapid intake of air as they reach their top speeds.

Cheetahs’ spines are also made for running, with a special, scrunching structure that acts as a sort of spring for the cats’ long legs, stretching their strides and shooting them through the turf of the savanna. Their tails are ringed, with a white tuft at the tip, and act as a rudder as a cheetah runs. Their coats transition from tan to cream and are speckled with solid black spots that blend into their sun-baked surroundings.

No two cheetahs possess the same smattering of spots, with the particular pattern of their coats allowing for the cats’ identification. One of the more friendly felines in the savanna, some male cheetahs cluster together in “coalitions” of two to three siblings to share meals, mates, territory and mutual affection. And though females are much more likely to live alone, some stay close to their mothers throughout the course of their solitary lives.

Where Do Cheetahs Live?

Whether they’re sociable males or solitary females, cheetahs aren’t selective about their surroundings, taking an assortment of habitats as home. Inhabiting several swaths of Africa and a few small stretches of Asia, they survive in sparse grasslands, spotted savannas, thick forests, and treacherous mountains, though they’re most common in the vast openness of eastern and southern Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia and Botswana.

The scattered shrubs and trees that typify these sprawling African terrains are suited for cheetahs, which pursue prey from far away, from the time that they are about six months old. It’s there and at that age that chirping cheetah cubs — cheetahs cannot roar — start to stalk and snatch at prey for the first time. Within a couple months, the youngsters then turn into skilled pursuit predators, perfect for the open spaces of Africa.

What Do Cheetahs Eat?

In the grasslands and savannas, cheetahs consume an assortment of small critters. In fact, their prey can’t be too big, since an average adult cheetah sits somewhere between 75 to 140 pounds. Their prey includes small antelopes, such as springboks, steenboks, impalas, and gazelles. The cats are also consumers of the smallest of the bigger, bulkier antelopes, such as sables and kudus, and are known to gnaw on the occasional rabbit or bird.

Cheetahs search their surroundings throughout the day, and particularly at dawn and dusk. Scoping rather than snuffing out their prey, these cats rely on their superior sense of sight, searching the terrain from the tops of tree stumps or termite mounds. Once they set their sights on an animal, cheetahs sneak toward their targets, concealing themselves with whatever cover is around. At around 300 feet, then they accelerate, chasing their meals.

Read More: The Saharan Sand Cat: A Tiny Feline Capable of Great Feats

How Fast Can Cheetahs Run?

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Only around 60 percent of a cheetah’s chases for food are fruitful, though they’re all feats of agility. Surging from 0 mph to 60 mph in only three seconds or so, these cats are the fastest felines — and the fastest terrestrial animals — around. Approximations of their top speeds sit at about 70 mph, meaning that they advance around 20 feet in a single stride, though they can only maintain those speeds for a span of approximately 900 feet.

Though they’re up to the task, sprinting at lighting speeds requires an abundance of rest and relaxation. And these cats are no slouches in the realm of R&R. In fact, cheetahs spend the majority of their time — almost 90 percent — sleeping and sitting around. Mostly, they stay still, lounging in the long grasses and saving their resources for when they’re forced to pursue prey or flee from foes.

Read More: Who Are the Fastest Animals in the World — and Why?

Do Cheetahs Attack Humans?

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Sometimes solitary and sometimes social amongst their own species, cheetahs are anxious and timid when it comes to their catty competitors. With shorter teeth and claws, cheetahs aren’t the strongest in a scrap and are likely to lose in a fight against a territorial lion or leopard. As such, they typically take flight rather than fight, relying on their speed to avoid a scuffle rather than staking a claim on their stretch of the savanna.

And like they shy away from lions and leopards, cheetahs tend to shy away from humans. Studies of cat conflicts suggest that cheetah attacks against humans are “relatively rare” if not completely unknown in the wild, though there are some such cases in captivity. On the whole, cheetahs are not considered a serious threat to humans. But the threat that humans pose to cheetahs, on the other hand, is severe.

Read More: 5 Of The Deadliest Animals Around The World

How Many Cheetahs Are Left in the World?

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In their prime, cheetahs crisscrossed all across Africa, romping from the continent’s southernmost coast to the continent’s northernmost coast. Whether solitary or sociable, these cats also roamed through the Arabian Peninsula and into western and southern Asia. Today, human activities and agriculture have reduced their range to only 9 percent of what it once was.

While male cheetahs typically need around 5 to 50 square miles of connected territory to find food and mates, more migratory females may need swaths of over 300 square miles or more to survive. As such, the reduction of their historical range has had a catastrophic impact on cheetah populations. While there were approximately 100,000 wild cheetahs in 1900, there are fewer than 10,000 cheetahs in the wilderness today.

Read More: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet

What’s The Difference Between a Cheetah and a Leopard?

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According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a more accurate approximation of the world’s wild cheetah count is around 6,500. With such a small population, cheetahs are classified as “vulnerable” according to the IUCN Red List. Also classified as “vulnerable” are two of the cheetah’s foremost foes, the lion and the leopard, the latter of which is commonly confused for the cheetah thanks to its own flecked fur.

Though cheetahs and leopards are similar in terms of their appearance, a close look at the cats reveals that they are two completely separate species. Leopards are bigger, bulkier and stronger than cheetahs and are skilled in the art of stealth. And though the two cats share a similar coloration, a cheetah’s spots are circular while a leopard’s spots are rose-shaped “rosettes,” with the centers of their spots showing off the tan color of their coats.

Though cheetahs and leopards are similar in terms of their appearance, there are also an abundance of differences between the species, named Acinonyx jubatus and Panthera pardus. Leopards are bigger, bulkier, and stronger than cheetahs and specially skilled in the art of stealth. And though the cats share a similar coloration, cheetahs’ spots are circular while leopards’ spots are rose-shaped “rosettes,” centered around splashes of tan.

Like cheetahs, leopards occupy an assortment of habitats in Africa and Asia, from the forests to the savannas, and pursue some of the same species. Rather than running after their meals, however, leopards sneak towards prey and pounce, ambushing them from the treetops or other hideouts. More arboreal than cheetahs, leopards climb the tallest trees, stashing their treats in the leaves at heights of 50 feet to keep them safe from scavengers.

But even the tops of trees aren’t enough to protect leopards from people. Human settlement and agriculture has reduced the leopard’s range to a similar level as the cheetah’s, limiting their abilities to sustain themselves and survive. Despite the cats’ natural competition, therefore, they share a similar story, having lost their historic habitats thanks to the same human intrusions.

Now, their only hope lies in the hands of human conservationists, working tirelessly to save the cheetahs, the leopards and all the other wildlife of the scattered savannas and other habitats of Africa and Asia.

Read More: 7 Fascinating Wild Felines That Just Might Make You a Cat Person

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