Name: Cheetah 
Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus 
Geographic Range: subsaharan Africa and Northern Iran
Habitat: Open grassland with many elevated points
Status: Endangered 
Diet in the wild: small antelope - springbok, steenbok, duikers, impala and gazelle; young warthogs, kudu, hartebeest, oryx, roan and sable; also game birds and rabbits
Diet in the zoo: Carnivorous Diet
Location:  Cheetah Exhibit

Physical Description

An adult cheetah weighs 80-140 pounds, is about 32 inches tall at the shoulder and 48-56 inches long from head to body with another 28-32 inches in tail - males are a little larger than females.  The adult fur is yellow or tan with solid black round or oval spots measuring .75 to 1.5 inches in diameter over nearly the entire body.  The head is small with eyes set high and a black "tear mark" running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the mouth.  The teeth are small to accommodate large nasal passages.  The throat and abdomen are white and the tail ends with 4-6 black rings and a bushy, white tuft. 

We can identify cheetahs by distinctive individual ring patterns on their tails.  Their legs are long and the paws are small with non-retractable claws and special paw pads that provide great traction. Cheetahs are sometimes mistaken for leopards which are much heavier animals with rosette shaped spots and no tear marks.

General Information

"Cheetah" comes from a Hindi word meaning "spotted one."  Two groups exist in wild populations: the family group and males.  Males, often siblings, form a group of 2 or 3; rarely 1 will live alone.  This group will live and hunt together for life and claims a range which may overlap several female territories.  Male territories may be as large as 300 square miles.  Young females, however, usually occupy the same range as their mother although all females are solitary except when they have a litter. 

Males and females mix only to mate; the males do not participate in cub-raising. Following a gestation period about 93 days a litter may contain 2 to 8 cubs.  At birth cubs are about 12 inches long and weigh about 0.6 pounds.  They are gray color with a mantle of hair along the back, which helps camouflage the cub in grass, but it begins to disappear at 3 months.  Only a small number reach adulthood: lions and hyenas are their worst enemies.  The mother moves the cubs every few days to avoid those predators.  The young stay with the mother for 16-24 months. 

Cheetahs are the fastest animals on land - able to reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour for short bursts.  They use their speed for hunting instead of relying on stealth and strength like many other species of big cats.  The cheetah is carnivorous, eating a variety of small animals.  While most cats are nocturnal predators, the cheetah is diurnal, hunting in early morning and late afternoon.  It likes to scan the countryside from a tree or the top of a hill because the cheetah is dependant on sight rather than smell.  The cheetah chases its prey for about 3.5 miles at an average speed of 45 miles per hour.  The stalk is as important as the sprint; usually it will try to get within 50 yards of its prey before the final acceleration.  Full sprints last about 20 seconds and almost never exceed 1 full minute.  The cheetah suffocates its captive, closing its jaw about the animals windpipe and squeezing until its dead.  At 6 weeks the young are strong enough to participate with the hunt. 

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Cheetah driven off its kill (Africam)
(archive courtesy of Karin Heroux)

Cheetahs are often persecuted by other predators, who steal their food, eat their cubs, and even attack the adults.  For these reasons, cheetahs life span in the wild is about 4 to 5 years, but they have been to known to live up to 15 years in zoos. 

The cheetah is considered the most endangered big cat today.  Human excess is probably the major factor pushing the cheetah toward extinction.  Too many people squeeze out other species, robbing them of living space and limiting their food supply.  Other contributing factors to their extinction include illegal hunting and low genetic variability. Some scientists believe that the cheetah population was nearly destroyed 10,000 years ago by a catastrophic event such as a disease or natural disaster that left only 1,000 or so surviving .  In 1900 there were approximately 100,000 cheetah worldwide.  Present estimates place their number at 10-15 thousand with about 1/10 of those living in captivity.  Namibia has the largest population of cheetah - about 2500.  Smaller populations exist in about 25 other countries - once ranging from Africa through central Asia all the way to India.

Special Features

This animal is definitely made for speed. The cheetah is the fastest animal on land. At only 5 months of age a young cheetah can outrun almost any other adult carnivore.  It has non-retractable claws and special paw pads that provide great traction.  The paws are less rounded and harder than other cat's and help the cheetah make quick turns.  To help enable the cheetah with rapid physical response, it has large nostrils, lungs, liver, heart, and adrenals.  A long, fluid body - much like a greyhound's - is streamlined over light bones.  The tail acts as a rudder for quick turning. Also their eyes have  been adapted for speed: the retinal fovea is of an elongated shape, giving the cheetah a sharp, wide-angle view of its surroundings.  The dark tear marks beneath each eye may also enhance its visual acuity by minimizing the sun's glare. 

The spine works as a spring for the powerful back legs to give the cheetah added reach for each step.  But this spring-like movement is very taxing physiologically.  The cheetah is able to reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour for short bursts. It can accelerate from 0 to 45 miles per hour in 2 seconds and can maintain its top speed for only about 300 yards.  A cheetah's running stride can reach up to 23 feet. Also, the cheetahs are the only members of the big cat family that cannot roar.  Instead they purr like house cats, especially when grooming or resting together.  Cheetahs can make many different sounds that include purrs, barks, growls, hisses, and chirps.  They can even mimic some bird sounds, perhaps to attract them.

Comments about the cheetahs of the Fort Worth Zoo

The Chee·tos Cheetah Exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo features the endangered big cat the cheetah. It also features the African Warthogs and Bongos. There are two cheetah yards, where there are tall trees and grass with hills that is the animals' natural preference for grassland or woodland as its habitat. To the east of the cheetahs are the bongos and to the west are the warthogs. Funding for the Chee·tos Cheetah exhibit was made possible by a grant from the Frito-Lay Chee·tos brand. 

Links to Additional Information

Reference list for cheetahs:

University of Michigan Animal Diversity page on cheetahs:$narrative.html

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles page on cheetahs:

The Cheetah Spot:

Page author:  Paul Baker             E -mail:
WhoZoo contact:

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Source of information: Fort Worth Zoo, Encyclopedias, Books, and the Internet
Running Cheetah Image from: The Caldwell Zoo Home Page
Information provided by
Thank you Elva A. Adams.