Mating and Cubs
Cheetahs usually are solitary animals, with males and females only coming together to mate. Females then raise the cubs on their own. Cheetahs have a gestation period of 90-95 days; after that time females will give birth to a litter of approximately three or four cubs, and the cubs weigh around 250 grams at birth. Cheetah cubs are completely helpless and blind at birth, however they develop rapidly and within 10 days their eyes have opened and they have begun to crawl around the nest area. By three weeks old their teeth have broken through their gums.
Due to the dangers posed by other predators the female will move the cubs to a new den every few days, and for the first six weeks she will leave them alone most of the time, to allow her to go off and hunt. She will often have to travel fairly long distances to catch prey and may leave the cubs for a long period of time. During this stage, cub mortality is very high, and up to 90% of cubs can die in the wild. Once the cubs have reached six weeks, they start to follow their mother around and begin to eat meat from her kills. From this point onwards the mother and cubs are inseparable until they are weaned.
New-born cubs have very dark fur, with the spots almost blended together and barely visible. During the first few weeks a thick yellowish-grey coat, called a mantle, grows along the cub’s back. The dark colour helps to camouflage the cub by blending into the shadows, and causes it to resemble a honey badger; honey badgers are ferocious small predators, and so are usually left alone by other animals. The mantle is also thought to help regulate the cubs’ temperature against rain and the heat of the sun. The mantle starts to disappear at around three months old, but the last traces of it are still present at over two years of age.
Cheetah cubs grow rapidly and have reached half their adult size at six months of age. By the time they are eight months old they have lost the last of their milk teeth, and they start trying to stalk and hunt, though these are usually clumsy and unsuccessful attempts. Cubs learn how to hunt from their mothers, but they also learn from play fighting with their siblings. They will stalk, chase and wrestle each other and this helps to refine their technique. They will stalk anything they see, and through this they learn what is not suitable prey, such as the larger antelope species.
The mother will leave her cubs when they are between 16 to 24 months old, she is usually pregnant again by this stage, and will simply disappear or chase them away, leaving her cubs to fend for themselves. The cubs are usually still not very good hunters at this point, and will stick together until the female cubs reach sexual maturity at 21/2 to 3 years. At this point they will leave their siblings and start a solitary life. Males will often form coalitions or partnerships with their brothers, or other unrelated males, as it is easier for them to hunt larger prey together. It also enables them to better hold their territories against other rival cheetahs. Females are always solitary, except when with cubs.