Adaptations to Speed
Cheetahs have many adaptations which enable them to run at such extraordinary speeds, reaching up to 120 kilometre per hour. They are the only big cats which can overtake an antelope. However, they are not endurance runners and can only maintain those speeds for four to five hundred metres before they have to stop and cool down in order to prevent over-heating.
Their body is narrow and lightweight with long, slender feet and legs, and specialised muscles which act simultaneously for high acceleration, allowing greater swing to the limbs. Their hip and shoulder girdles swivel on a flexible spine that curves up and down, as the limbs are alternately bunched up and then extended when running, giving greater reach to the limbs. Their strides can be between 7 and 8 metres apart. They also have semi-retractable claws which grip the ground, giving them traction whilst they run.
Their long, muscular tail acts as a stabiliser or rudder for balance to counteract their body weight, preventing them from rolling over and spinning out in quick, fast turns during a high-speed chase. Cheetahs can turn a 90-degree angle at 80 km/h. The tail also helps them to steer, acts as a handbrake and as a fly swat.
They have a very deep ribcage which contains a powerful heart, oversized liver and large strong arteries in order to carry oxygenated blood to all parts of the body whilst they are running. A pregnant female also carries her cubs up towards the ribcage, which offers the cubs extra protection and reduces the weight around her stomach, allowing her to hunt right up until she gives birth.
Cheetahs have small heads, with flat faces and a reduced muzzle length, enabling their large eyes to be positioned for maximum binocular vision, and they have enlarged nostrils and extensive air-filled sinuses which allow them to quickly get their breath back after running.