This sleek and beautiful cat is the fastest land mammal on the planet, reaching speeds of up to 112km/h – but these are speeds the cheetahs can only maintain for a short distance. The exertion from the sprint sends the cheetah’s body temperature soaring and after the run it needs to find shade in order to rest and cool down. This amazing species has made some unique evolutionary adaptations to allow for its extreme speed. Cheetahs have large nostrils, enlarged hearts and lungs, and they have semi-retractable claws which act like running spikes. These semi-retractable claws have the exact same ligament structure as those of a leopard or a lion but lack the sheath covering and fur that the other cats have in order to fully retract them.
The cheetah is classified as endangered and with only 170 in the whole of Kruger National Park’s 5 million hectares, they face an uphill struggle to keep from becoming extinct. It doesn’t help their odds of survival that about 90% of cubs are killed, mainly by the other larger predators or even eagles. But they have gone through worse times than the present. Conservative views are that in the last Ice Age the worldwide cheetah population dropped to as few as 7 individuals. The extreme views are that there were only 2 individuals that survived this cold period. From these disastrously low numbers they managed to fight back to populate the whole of Africa and almost half of Asia.
Often confused with leopards, there are a number of key differences to tell the two cats apart. The cheetah has distinctive black streaks running down its face from the eyes; it has spots as opposed to the rosettes of the leopard and is a lot slimmer than a leopard. The cheetah has a slim, streamlined body which aids its speed and its long tail acts as a counterweight when making sharp turns while sprinting.
The cheetahs’ main prey sources are smaller antelope such as impala but they have been known to take down young zebra and wildebeest. When coalitions of male cheetahs are hunting together they can even bring down full-grown zebra and wildebeest. The only downfall of their design as sprinters is the fact that they have lost a lot of strength and are therefore not able to protect their kills from other predators. They have almost 50% of their kills stolen by lions, leopards, hyenas and even warthogs. Due to this, cheetahs have adapted to hunting in the heat of the day when the rest of the big predators are sleeping.