The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is one of the most graceful members of the cat family, and one of the few cat species which relies on speed instead of stealth when hunting. Cheetahs are in fact the fastest land mammals on Earth, reaching speeds of 110-120 km/h. They accelerate from 0 to 80 km/h in just three seconds, which is faster than any sports car. The only animals faster are the peregrine falcon, which can dive at speeds of 300 km/h and the tiger beetle, which if it was as large as a human, could run at speeds of 494 km/h.
Cheetahs originate from a puma ancestor and date back approximately 4.9 million years. The name cheetah comes from the term "Chitraka", which means "speckled" in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit.
Cheetahs rely on sight to detect their prey and are therefore more active during the day; their distinctive tear marks, running from the inside of the eye to the corner of their mouth, help to keep sunlight away from their eyes. In summertime, they are more active early morning and late afternoon, and they will rest in shade during the hottest hours of the day. This helps them to avoid larger predators which hunt at night.
Their coat is a tan colour with black spots. This helps them to keep cool and to camouflage themselves in the savannah. They have a white underbelly that has no spots and the tail’s spots merge to form rings towards its end. Male cheetahs are usually larger than females and have a slightly bigger head. The average body length of an adult cheetah is between 1 and 1.5 metres and they can weigh between 30 and 65 kilograms.
Cheetahs are smaller and lighter than the other big cats: these are adaptations to their hunting technique of short bursts of speed. Therefore, they prefer to run away (relying on their speed) from other predators, rather than stay and fight, and they lose a huge number of their kills to lions, leopards, hyena, vultures and even bushmen can take a kill off a cheetah. They are also the only predator that has not been known to attack humans in the wild.
Cheetahs are unique amongst other big cats in that they are unable to roar. They produce a range of 14 different vocalisations, including yip, chur, yowl and they alone are able to purr, like a domestic cat. They are often confused with leopards as they are the only other large spotted cat, but differ in many significant ways, such as build, hunting technique and time, habitat, prey species, vocalisations, and appearance.