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Fun facts about cheetahs

Article by Jana Jansen van Vuuren

Jana Jansen van Vuuren

Posted: November 24, 2022

6 min read

If you have a passion for cats, or an interest in anything fast, then you’ll probably know a bit about cheetahs. Want to find out even more? Well you’re in the right place!

Quick, agile and sprinkled with spots, these big cats are the world’s fastest land animals. In this article, you’ll learn informative and fun facts about these beautiful cats.


How fast can a cheetah run?

The cheetah has a top speed of about 120 kilometres per hour. But, cheetahs are like olympic sprinters, and can only maintain this speed for short bursts of time.

What allows cheetahs to run so fast?

There are quite a few cheetah adaptations that have allowed this creature to earn its title as the fastest land animal. Here are some of the features that make them so speedy:

  • They have a lightweight, slender frame that weighs between 21 and 72 kilograms.
  • Their respiratory and circulatory systems are designed for speed. Their heart, lungs and nasal passages are much larger than you would expect for a cat their size.
  • In order to maintain their grip at high speed, a cheetah’s claws are semi-protractible. This also makes it easier to identify a cheetah’s pawprints because, unlike other cats, their prints will have tell-tale claw marks at the toes. 
  • They use their long tails to keep their balance while hunting at high speeds.


Where do cheetahs live?

Cheetahs live in a wide variety of landscapes, but are most commonly found in dry, open grasslands. They may also spend time in denser vegetation and rocky terrain.

Cheetahs can be found napping under trees, in tall grasses, on rocky outposts or hiding in the shrubbery.

Cheetahs prefer dry, hot climates, but aren’t fond of deserts or tropical areas –  although there is a small population of cheetahs that can be found in the Sahara desert.  Certain areas in southern Africa – namely Namibia, Botswana and South Africa — tick all the right boxes and this is where cheetahs are most common.


What do cheetahs eat?

Cheetahs tend to target smaller and faster animals because they themselves are nimble and quick. They do not have the same strength and power as a lion – which is why they tend to target different prey species. Due to their speed and prey targets, cheetahs catch up to 50% of their prey, unlike lions which are less successful.

Cheetahs mostly target small antelope, like springbok, impalas and Thomson’s gazelles. Sometimes cheetahs will also eat smaller mammals, such as hares, and birds. 

Cheetahs are susceptible to kleptoparasitism, other predators stealing their food. This means that if they take down a big mammal, it would likely be stolen from them by lions or hyenas, while they’re catching their breath after a hunt.


What sounds do cheetahs make and how do they communicate?

Cheetahs don’t roar like their lion relatives. But, they do make a specific set of sounds that researchers have yet to categorise.

Some of the most easily distinguishable cheetah sounds include purring, meowing – also known as a bleating – and a bird-like chirping or high-pitched barking sound. There is also a unique set of sounds mothers use to communicate with their cubs. 

Like other cats, cheetahs also use smell to communicate. They do this by urinating at certain locations to let other cheetahs know that this is their home territory.  And, in the case of females, these smells also signal when they are looking for a mate.


What is a group of cheetahs called?

Cheetahs are the only wild cats, other than lions, that live in groups. These groups of cheetahs are known as “coalitions” and are usually made up of a group of brothers. 

Female cheetahs that have cubs are solitary animals. But, if the female isn’t currently rearing cubs she might hang out with other cheetahs – most often her own brothers or sisters.


What are cheetah cubs like?

Cheetahs don’t have a seasonal fertility cycle. This means that you could spot a cheetah cub at just about any time of the year. 

Cheetah embryos take about three months to mature after conception and there are usually three to five cubs born in a single litter.

Like many cat species, cheetah cubs are born blind, and only start walking at around two weeks. 

They are also born with a kind of “mohawk” of long downy hair running from the top of their heads down their backs. They lose this spiky crown as they grow up.

A cheetah mother moves her cubs to a new location every few days, to hide and protect them from lions in the area. Until the cubs are able to walk on their own, the mother will move them by carrying each cub by the scruff of its neck.

As the cubs grow up, cheetah mothers will use their tails and a series of specific sounds to guide their young from place to place.

Learn more

Cheetah cubs will drink from their mother until they are about three to six months old, and start eating meat when they are between five and six weeks old. 

The mother will also bring home wounded, young or weak prey for the cubs to practise their hunting skills on. It’ll take many months of practice before a young cheetah gets to secure a kill by itself. 

Most cubs will hang around with their mom until they are about one or two years old and then gradually move away. 


Who are cheetah’s predators?

Technically cheetahs don’t have any predators, because they aren’t preyed on by any other animals. However, a large number of cheetah cubs are killed by other predators, like lions.

In fact, the mortality rate of cheetah cubs is around 70%, and most of those fatalities are lion-related. This means that most cheetah cubs aren’t able to reach maturity and reproduce. 

Another contributing factor to the cheetah’s mortality rate is that their food is often stolen by other predators – like lions, leopards and wild dogs – as well as scavengers such as vultures and hyenas.


What is a cheetah’s lifespan?

Cheetahs often live for 10 to 12 years in the wild, but can survive up to 20 years in captivity. 


Are cheetahs friendly?

Cheetahs are not an active threat to humans, and are rather docile compared to other wild cats. 

But, cheetahs are still wild animals, and you should never attempt to touch a wild cheetah. This is important for your own safety, as well as for the cheetah’s well-being.


Leopard vs cheetah: What’s the difference? 

They’re both spotted African cats, so it’s easy to get confused. But here are some of the main differences between leopards and cheetahs:

  • Cheetahs are taller than leopards, but less stocky, with slighter frames.
  • Leopards have irregularly spaced black rosettes – rose-shaped markings – spread across their pelts, whereas cheetah’s pelts are uniformly covered in lots of  black spots.
  • Cheetahs have black “teardrop” patterns running down the inner corners of their eyes towards their mouths. Leopards don’t have these. 
  •  As we’ve already noted, cheetahs don’t roar, but leopards do.
  • Some cheetahs form groups, but all leopards are solitary, except when mating.
  • Cheetahs tend to have more cubs in a single litter – about three to five. Leopards have about two to three.
  • Cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, but leopards are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night.
  • Leopards like to climb and spend time in trees, but cheetah’s paws, claws and ankles are designed for running at high speed rather than climbing. This means you’re more likely to find cheetahs on the ground, while leopards can often be found napping in a tree. Cheetahs will use trees as lookout posts.
  • Leopards use the element of surprise to secure a kill, pouncing on their prey from a perch high up in a tree – or from a spot where they’ve been hiding in the tall grasses. Cheetahs use open spaces and their speed to catch their prey.
  • Leopards store their larger kills in trees. Cheetahs, on the other hand, usually  abandon their larger kills. This is one of the cheetah habits that GVI wildlife conservation volunteers in South Africa are currently studying.


How many types of cheetahs are there?

The cheetah is the only species of its genus, Acinonyx

There are five subspecies, two of which, the Asiatic and Northwest African cheetah, are classified as critically endangered. 

The other three – the South African, Sudanese and Tanzanian cheetahs – have higher population numbers, but these have still declined in recent years.


How many cheetahs are left in the world?

Today there are 6,674 mature cheetahs left in the wild.  Researchers believe that this small and decreasing number of cheetahs is because a large number of these animals live in unprotected areas.

If you have a passion for wildlife conservation and would like to work closely with these beautiful cats, GVI has two wildlife conservation internship opportunities available in South Africa. They are our  three-month internship, and our six-month internship – which includes a placement with a local partner.


Find out more about GVI’s cheetah conservation opportunities, and see how you can make an impact in the conservation of the world’s fastest land animal. 

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