|The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a vulnerable member of the cat family (Felidae), a poor climber that hunts by speed and stealth. As such, it is placed in its own genus, Acinonyx. It is the fastest of all land animals and can reach speeds of up to 110 km/h (68 mph) in short bursts up to 460 m (500 yards), and has the ability to accelerate from 0 to 110 km/h (68 mph) in three seconds, faster than most super cars.
The word "cheetah" is derived from the Sanskrit word chitrakāya, meaning "variegated body".
The adult animal weighs from 40 to 65 kg (90 to 140 lb). Its total body length is from 115 to 135 cm (45 in to 55 in), while the tail can measure up to 84 cm (33 in) in length. Males tend to be slightly larger than females and have slightly bigger heads, but there is not a great variation in cheetah sizes and it is difficult to tell males and females apart by appearance alone. Compared to a similarly-sized tiger, the cheetah is generally shorter-bodied, but is longer tailed and taller (it averages about 90 cm or 36 in tall) and so it appears more streamlined.
Some cheetahs also have a rare fur pattern mutation: cheetahs with larger, blotchy, merged spots are known as 'king cheetahs'. It was once thought to be a separate subspecies, but it is merely a mutation of the African cheetah. The 'king cheetah' has only been seen in the wild a handful of times, but it has been bred in captivity.
The cheetah's paws have semi-retractable claws (known only in three other cat species - the Fishing Cat, the Flat-headed Cat and the Iriomote Cat) offering the cat extra grip in its high-speed pursuits. The ligament structure of the cheetah's claws is the same as those of other cats; it simply lacks the sheath of skin and fur present in other varieties, and therefore the claws are always visible, with the exception of the dewclaw. The dewclaw itself is much shorter and straighter than other cats.
Adaptations that enable the cheetah to run as fast as it does include large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake, and an enlarged heart and lungs that work together to circulate oxygen efficiently. During a typical chase its respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute. While running, in addition to having good traction due to its semi-retractable claws, the cheetah uses its tail as a rudder-like means of steering to allow it to make sharp turns, necessary to outflank prey who often make such turns to escape.
Unlike "true" big cats, the cheetah can purr as it inhales, but cannot roar. By contrast, the big cats can roar but cannot purr, except while exhaling. However, the cheetah is still considered by some to be the smallest of the big cats. While it is often mistaken for the leopard, the cheetah does have distinguishing features, such as the aforementioned long "tear-streak" lines that run from the corners of its eyes to its mouth. The body frame of the cheetah is also very different from that of the leopard, most notably so in its thinner and longer tail, and unlike the leopard, its spots are not arranged into rosettes.
The cheetah is a vulnerable species. Out of all the big cats, it is the least able to adapt to new environments. It has always proved difficult to breed in captivity, although recently a few zoos have been successful. Once widely hunted for its fur, the cheetah now suffers more from the loss of both habitat and prey.
The cheetah was formerly considered to be particularly primitive among the cats and to have evolved approximately 18 million years ago. New research, however puts the last common ancestor of all 40 existing species of feline more recently, at 11 million years. The same research indicates that the cheetah, while highly derived morphologically, is not a particularly ancient lineage, having separated from its closest living relatives (the cougar Puma concolor and the jaguarundi Puma yaguarondi) around 5 million years ago.
Reproduction and social life
Females give birth to up to nine cubs after a gestation period of ninety to ninety-eight days, although the average litter size is three to five. Cubs weigh from 150 to 300 g (5 to 10 oz.) at birth. Unlike some other cats, the cheetah is born with its characteristic spots. Cubs are also born with a downy underlying fur on their necks, called a mantle, extending to mid-back. This gives them a mane or Mohawk-type appearance; this fur is shed as the cheetah grows older. It has been speculated that this mane gives a cheetah cub the appearance of the ratel, to scare away potential aggressors.
Death rate is very high during the early weeks, and up to 90% of the cubs are killed during this time by lions, hyenas or even by eagles. Cubs leave their mother between thirteen and twenty months after birth. Life span is up to twelve years in wild, but up to twenty years in captivity.
Unlike males, females are solitary and tend to avoid each other, though some mother/daughter pairs have been known to be formed for small periods of time. The cheetah has a unique, well-structured social order. Females live alone except when they are raising cubs and they raise their cubs on their own. The first eighteen months of a cub's life are important - cubs learn many lessons because survival depends on knowing how to hunt wild prey species and avoid other predators. At eighteen months, the mother leaves the cubs, who then form a sibling, or 'sib', group, that will stay together for another six months. At about two years, the female siblings leave the group, and the young males remain together for life.
Diet and hunting
Running at high speeds puts a great deal of strain on the cheetah's body. When sprinting, the cheetah's body temperature becomes so high that it would be deadly to continue - this is why the cheetah is often seen resting after it has caught its prey. While resting the cheetah risks a 50% chance of losing its catch to other predators, such as the lion, the leopard, the spotted hyena and baboons. If it is a hard chase, it sometimes needs to rest for half an hour or more. The cheetah kills its prey by tripping it during the chase, then biting it on the underside of the throat to suffocate it, for the cheetah is not strong enough to break the necks of the four-legged prey it mainly hunts. The bite may also puncture a vital artery in the neck. Then the cheetah proceeds to devour its catch as quickly as possible before the kill is taken by stronger predators.
The diet of a cheetah is dependant upon the area of Africa. For example, on the eastern plains, their preferred prey is Thomson's Gazelle. This small antelope is several inches shorter than the cheetah, making for an appropriate prey size. It is about 23-28 inches (58-70 centimeters) tall and 28-43 inches (70-107 centimeters) long. The antelope cannot run faster than the cheetah (only up to 80 km/h or 49.71 mph). Cheetah look for animals which have strayed some distance from the group, they do not seek out old or weak ones. They may go several days without water - in a pinch they have been known to break open melons for fluid.
Genetics and classification
The cheetah has unusually low genetic variability and a very low sperm count, which also suffers from low motility and deformed flagellae. Skin grafts between non-related cheetahs illustrate this point in that there is no rejection of the donor skin. It is thought that it went through a prolonged period of inbreeding following a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age. It probably evolved in Africa during the Miocene epoch (26 million to 7.5 million years ago), before migrating to Asia. New research by a team led by Warren Johnson and Stephen O’Brien of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity (National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland, United States) has recently placed the last common ancestor of all existing cat species as living in Asia 11 million years ago, which may lead to revision and refinement of existing ideas about cheetah evolution. Now-extinct species include: Acinonyx pardinensis (Pliocene epoch), much larger than the modern cheetah and found in Europe, India, and China; Acinonyx intermedius (mid-Pleistocene period), found over the same range. The extinct genus Miracinonyx was extremely cheetah-like, but recent DNA analysis has shown that Miracinonyx inexpectatus, Miracinonyx studeri, and Miracinonyx trumani (early to late Pleistocene epoch), found in North America and called the "North American cheetah" are not true cheetahs, instead being close relatives to the cougar.
Morphs and variations
Its species status was resolved in 1981 when king cheetahs were born at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa. In May 1981, two spotted sisters gave birth there and each litter contained one king cheetah. The sisters had both mated with a wild-caught male from the Transvaal area (where king cheetahs had been recorded). Further king cheetahs were later born at the Centre. This mutation has been reported in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa's former Transvaal province.
The king cheetah, once thought to be a separate sub-species, is an African cheetah exhibiting a rare fur pattern mutation. A recessive gene must be inherited from both parents in order for this "blotchy" pattern to appear. This very rare animal has been seen in the wild only 6 times. It has been known to exist in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa's Transvaal province. The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa specializes in breeding this cat in captivity.
Other color variations
The Mughal Emperor of India, Jahangir, recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608. In the memoirs of Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, the Emperor says that in the third year of his reign: Raja Bir Singh Deo brought a white cheetah to show me. Although other sorts of creatures, both birds and beasts have white varieties .... I had never seen a white cheetah. Its spots, which are (usually) black, were of a blue color, and the whiteness of the body also inclined to blue-ishness. This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Although the spots were formed of black pigment, the less dense pigmentation gives a hazy, grayish effect. As well as Jahangir's white cheetah at Agra, a report of "incipient albinism" has come from Beaufort West according to Guggisberg.
In a letter to "Nature in East Africa", HF Stoneham reported a melanistic cheetah (black with ghost markings) in the Trans-Nzoia District of Kenya in 1925. Vesey Fitzgerald saw a melanistic cheetah in Zambia in the company of a spotted cheetah. Red (erythristic) cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background. Cream (isabelline) cheetahs have pale red spots on a pale background. Some desert region cheetahs are unusually pale; probably they are better-camouflaged and therefore better hunters and more likely to breed and pass on their paler coloration. Blue (Maltese or grey) cheetahs have variously been described as white cheetahs with grey-blue spots (chinchilla) or pale grey cheetahs with darker grey spots (Maltese mutation). A cheetah with hardly any spots was shot in Tanzania on 1921 (Pocock), it had only a few spots on the neck and back and these were unusually small.
In 1877, Philip Sclater of the Zoological Society of London wrote of a recent acquisition by the zoo: It presents generally the appearance of a cheetah, but is thicker in the body, and has shorter and stouter limbs, and a much thicker tail. When adult it will probably be considerably larger than the cheetah, and is larger even now than our three specimens of that animal. The fur is much more woolly and dense than in the cheetah, as is particularly noticeable on the ears, mane and tail. Cheetahs have a flexible spine for precise turning and running.
Woolly cheetahs were observed to have thicker bodies and stouter limbs than normal cheetahs, although this may have been a misleading appearance given by the long hair. They had dense, woolly hair especially on the tail and neck where it formed a ruff or mane. The long fur made the normal spotted cheetah pattern indistinct and the animals appeared pale fawn with dark, round blotches.
Long hair in cats is due to recessive genes, so the pertinent gene here may still be present in a few individuals. However, the cheetah gene pool is unusually uniform so the lack of modern longhaired cheetahs means the mutation has probably vanished.
The whole of the body is of a pale isabelline color, rather paler on the belly and lower parts, but covered all over, including the belly, with round dark fulvous blotches. There are no traces of the black spots which are so conspicuous in all of the varieties of the cheetah which I have seen, nor of the characteristic black line between the mouth and eye.
Although described as blotched, a painting of the cheetah depicts it as freckled and the artist mistakenly added "eyeliner" markings which were not present in the actual specimen. In 1878, a second woolly cheetah was reported as a preserved specimen in the South African Museum. Both the London and South African specimens had come from Beaufort West. In 1884, a third skin was obtained from the same area, though this had more distinct spots and was a little smaller. By the late 1880s, the trophy hunters had eliminated the woolly cheetah; from the number and locality of specimens it seems that this variant had evolved very recently (generations rather than millennia); perhaps all those animals (it seems only a handful are known at best) were the offspring of a single couple born around 1875, or maybe one more generation.
In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R Lydekker wrote of the "hunting leopard" or "chita" (old spelling of "cheetah") in which he distinguished it from the "normal" cheetah: "The hunting leopard of South Africa has been stated to differ from the Indian animal in its stouter build, thicker tail, and denser and more woolly fur, the longest hairs occurring on the neck, ears, and tail. This woolly hunting leopard was regarded by its describer as a distinct species (Cynaelurus lanius), but it is, at most, only a local race, of which the proper name is C. jubatus guttatus." In how far this can be taken to imply that the wooly variant continued to be seen after the 1880s is not clear.
Cheetahs were formerly, and are sometimes still, hunted because many farmers believe that they eat livestock. When the species came under threat, numerous campaigns were launched to try to educate farmers and encourage them to conserve cheetahs. Recent evidence has shown that cheetahs will not attack and eat livestock, if they can avoid doing so, as they prefer their wild prey. However, they have no problem with including farmland as part of their territory, leading to conflict.
Ancient Egyptians often kept them as pets, and also tamed and trained them for hunting. Cheetahs would be taken to hunting fields in low-sided carts or by horseback, hooded and blindfolded, and kept on leashes while dogs flushed out their prey. When the prey was near enough, the cheetahs would be released and their blindfolds removed. This tradition was passed on to the ancient Persians and carried to India. This practice continued into the twentieth century by Indian princes. Cheetahs continued to be associated with royalty and elegance, their use as pets spreading just as their hunting skills were. Other such princes and kings kept them as pets, including Genghis Khan and Charlemagne, who boasted of having kept cheetahs within their palace grounds. Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605, kept as many as 1000 cheetahs. As recently as the 1930s the Emperor of Abyssinia, Haile Selassie, was often photographed leading a cheetah by a leash.
Cheetahs are included on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) list of vulnerable species (African subspecies threatened, Asiatic subspecies in critical situation) as well as on the U.S. ESA: threatened species - Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Approximately 12,400 cheetahs remain in the wild in twenty-five African countries; Namibia has the most, with about 2,500. Another fifty to sixty critically endangered Asiatic cheetahs are thought to remain in Iran. There have been successful breeding programs, including the use of in-vitro fertilization, in zoos around the world.
Founded in Namibia in 1990, the Cheetah Conservation Fund's mission is to be an internationally recognized centre of excellence in research and education on cheetahs and their eco-systems, working with all stakeholders to achieve best practice in the conservation and management of the world's cheetahs.
The Cheetah Conservation Foundation was set up in 1993 for cheetah protection. It is based in South Africa.
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