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The secrets of being a cheetah

This blog about cheetahs was written by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Dominique Minnaar. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

Read time: 4 minutes

“Acinonyx jubatus”, a diurnal predatory machine designed purely for speed. Commonly known as the ‘cheetah’ – who should not be challenged to a game of poker, and yes, we’ve made all the jokes on our drives! Puns aside, there is actually much more to this mammal than meets the eye.

Built for speed

A cheetah pauses in the road, listening for prey to hunt.

The cheetah is an animal that is specifically built to master the art of speed, making it stand out in a unique way from Southern Africa’s other popular wild cats. Weighing between 40–60 kg and having a slender frame, gives this predator the ability to reach speeds of about 75–100 km/h during full sprint, making them the fastest land mammals – and no, they didn’t cheat to achieve this. 

Like any machine, these animals were manufactured with suitable components to boost their capacity for acceleration. Long flexible spines and legs enable the cheetah to take wide strides while running. The tail acts almost like the rudder of a boat or a steering wheel of a car, as it assists the animal in balance, ensuring the cheetah can change direction sharply. The skull and ears are quite small and streamlined, making the head lighter, kind of like an arrow. 

Have you ever noticed the size of a cheetah’s chest relative to the rest of its body? It sticks out and is noticeably larger than their stomach area. Why? Again, think of a vehicle, where does the engine lie? It has its very own compartment, right? This concept applies to the cheetah as well. 

A cheetah’s chest accommodates its very own internal powerhouse – the lungs and heart. These organs are enlarged to maximise oxygen intake, increasing the speed at which they can run. The heart’s ability to pump more blood combined with lungs of a higher capacity is perfect for increased oxygen flow. 

But hang on, it doesn’t stop there 

A cheetah takes a break from all the hard work to relax on a dirt road in South Africa.

These lightning-fast creatures also have bigger nasal cavities and aerodynamic nostrils. Sounds pretty cool, but why is it beneficial? Allow me to clarify. These two characteristics improve the flow of air, also maximising oxygen intake. This is in order to enhance breathing during full sprint and facilitate breathing during suffocation of captured prey. 

So far so good, however there is a downside to this. Just like any machine, you will always find your pros and cons. Due to the larger nasal cavities, there is reduced space for teeth. As a result, the dentition of a cheetah is much smaller in size compared to other predators.

Time for hunting tactics

A cheetah’s astonishing sprint lasts only for a short moment, therefore cheetahs will start a chase only once they are within a 100 metre or so range to their prey. Cheetahs generally hunt in open plains and use tall grass as cover while they stalk their prey. They do not eat immediately, but rather rest first because they are still exhausted from the chase. That is why cheetahs usually target isolated prey and drag them to nearby shade. Otherwise they’ll eat where the prey falls. 

Unfortunately, this method makes cheetahs prone to easily losing their kills. As mentioned before, cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day. By hunting at times when other carnivores (such as lions) do not hunt, they avoid competition for food, giving cheetahs a higher chance of obtaining a successful kill. 

A mother cheetah walks towards her juvenile cub.

Did you know that cheetahs can purr? How’s that for a big house cat? (Seriously though … don’t let that purr fool you. It’s only cute until you realise that these creatures are a little more wild than your average purring feline house pet.) This characteristic makes cheetahs different from other wild cats, like the leopard. That’s one way to differentiate the two! Just don’t get too close to find out … 

Cheetahs are painted with distinct black ‘’tear marks’’, running down its face from its eyes. I love this feature because there are so many stories that people come up with about how those marks came to be, which is super fun to share and hear around a campfire at night. 

Some believe it’s the stains left behind by a mourning mother who lost her cubs. Others say that years ago cheetahs would weep because they were mocked by other predators for being slow and small, which encouraged them to improve their speed, and it’s now a symbol of how they came from the most mocked hunters in the animal kingdom to the fastest, most admired predator. 

What stories have you heard? 

It’s absolutely thrilling seeing this incredible animal, my heart raced with excitement the first time I saw them on our game drive! Next time you come across one, I’m certain you will see it through different eyes … unless it was too fast to catch a glimpse of. 

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