One of my proudest moments in academia, if not my proudest moment, you know not having graduated or won a Nobel Prize or anything, was in ‘Scientific Communications’ class when I gave a presentation about the cheetah.
Now let me explain a few things. For one thing, I’m autistic. Standing under bright lights talking to a room full of people, some of whom are my peers and some of whom consider themselves my ‘superiors’ is something I have a problem with on so many levels.
For another thing, beyond that I have natural shyness and stage-fright anyway, I hate the idea of presenting anything, I always think I’m going to be terrible at it, I always assume I’m going to fuck it up until…
Finally – Once I get into it I slay it!
I don’t know what it is about performance, but once I settle in I am a natural and especially when I am talking about something I am passionate about.
There are people I haven’t seen for a decade who if I bumped into them now would go “Oh my god, Karl! I remember you! The cheetah talk!” that’s how amazing it, allegedly was. I don’t know, I remember little of it, I was in, what I believe they call, ‘the zone’.
Anyway, academic presentations are one thing, and I always lose marks for unprofessionalism, too many jokes and an inability not to use profane language’ll do that – I do lack discipline! But it’s the questions afterwards that really give you a chance to shine, and I will never forget this exchange.
Lecturer: So would you describe the cheetah as your favourite cat?
Me: Well…It’s difficult. I love all cats really. If I had to pick a favourite it would be the tiger, especially the Amur tiger. They’re big, they’re majestic, homely. They’re like my wife of cats. But the cheetah is like my slender, big-chested mistress.
For some reason it got a good laugh. It is also true.
In order to be able to achieve the feats of sprinting cheetahs are renowned for, much like big-engined sports cars they need huge air intakes. They have massive chest cavities, filled with heaving lungs. Even though they still use them to breathe while sprinting, unlike human short-distance sprinters who tend to hold their breath, they will still gasp away after they’re done to repay that oxygen debt.
Partly as a result of that presentation and the respect it earned me, and partly as a result of studying cheetahs more for future projects, they overtook tigers in my eye. I still love tigers, but there’s something so very special about the cheetah.
They are, as far as we know, the fastest living land animal at full sprint. The fastest measured cheetah sprint, from a standing start, is 61mph or 98km/h. It was set by Sarah, a female cheetah from Cincinnati Zoo, who covered a 100m sprint in 5.95 seconds.
The world record for a human, set, admittedly casually, by Usain Bolt is 9.58 seconds, nearly twice as long– you can see a video of the record setting cheetah sprint here.
It is estimated they can reach anywhere between 60-80mph or around 90-130km/h. There are certainly enough anecdotes that the measured fastest top speed is waaaaay short of where the actual limit is. They basically go at UK motorway speed. Sure, they can only do that in sprints, in bursts, but it is still mightily impressive.
Another thing, as mentioned in the earlier jaguarundi instalment, they are the only extant (opposite of extinct) member of their genus, Acinonyx. As explained then, it doesn’t real mean anything practically, it’s just another interesting thing about the cheetah.
They also have something in common with Homo sapiens, the human species. We both survived a severe, seemingly natural, population bottleneck – where you suffer drastic, often sudden, drops in population numbers. In the case of the cheetah they even survived two!
One would have occurred roughly around the same time as the human bottleneck, 50,000-100,000 years ago. In humans this has been linked with the potential eruption of a supervolcano in Indonesia, although this, as with everything in science, is disputed. In cheetahs it seems to coincide with a massive increase of their range across Europe, Africa and Asia and so could be related to significant dispersal of the population and an inability to find a mate to breed with. Since the supervolcano, or ‘Toba Hypothesis’ in humans is disputed it could be that people did the same thing. Distributed themselves too far and wide, got sick, inbred, died and slowly found their numbers dwindling.
The second cheetah population bottleneck is more interesting, however. Occurring around 10,000-15,000 years ago, around the end of the last ice-age and the end of the Pleistocene epoch, when much of the so-called megafauna – the giant animals – of North America and Europe also went extinct.
This killed off the cheetah populations of America and most of Europe, as well as other species of cheetah such as the giant cheetah, Acinonyx pardinensis, which would have been much like its smaller relative only around twice as big. If you’ve ever seen a cheetah, tall, muscular, slender – imagining one twice is big is…awe-inspiring.
But with dwindling numbers of prey species, increasing competition for what prey there was and the pressures of humans migrating out of Africa and into their European habitats it is easy to see how they would have found it hard to compete.
It also caused the second biggest problem cheetahs face today.
The first biggest problem is, obviously, us. If you ever get tired of my people bashing in wildlife articles, fuck off now, it won’t stop – we are the single biggest ecological disaster the genome ever evolved. People are dicks and have hunted and persecuted cheetahs to near-extinction.
They had a hard enough time anyway because the Pleistocene bottleneck caused them to suffer their second biggest problem, significantly issues in the genetics department.
‘Inbreeding depression’ is a biological term used to describe what happens when not having enough genetic diversity within your population affects the population negatively.
Take, for example, covid in humans right now. Some people get symptoms worse than others and it can be safely assumed that, outside of any underlying non-genetic conditions, previous sicknesses, illness or weakness; given two supposedly healthy individuals, one who suffers more than another may do so because of genetic differences.
But imagine if everyone had roughly the same genes and all suffered just as badly. One disease could kill off an entire species. One event, one sickness, one virus or bacterium crossing from one host or population to yours could kill you off.
That’s what happened to cheetahs. If you’ve ever looked at cheetahs and wondered “Why do they all look so alike?” it’s because they, almost literally, are. They are incredibly genetically similar to one another.
And while biologists, ecologists, geneticists and conservationists are busy trying to solve this problem, which can be done by sequencing the genomes of individuals in a population, checking for where there are differences and moving those individuals with the most differences to areas where you know there is low genetic diversity – Then it’s a matter of hoping they meet you halfway and get fucking! it’s very interesting. I know the captive breeding programme is seeing some decent results with this.
But whilst they are busy trying to solve that problem cheetahs are still busy being poisoned, shot, killed as pests, pushed out of their habitats, having their prey poisoned, shot or pushed out of their habitats, and having those habitats become increasingly exploited by human activity.
I guess that’s the thing most special about the cheetah. I suspect it will not be around much longer.
The IUCN lists it as vulnerable, and there are only around 7,000 individuals left in the wild – this has approximately halved since even the 1970s. Their historical range used to cover most of Africa, almost all of the middle-east, and well into Asia, down into India. Now, excluding a tiny population around Iran, they are only distributed in small pockets of Africa. Basically get busy helping now, because if you don’t it’s bye-bye.
But enough of the sad shit, let’s get on to the cool shit. The reasons we want these cool cats around.
The cheetah is the Lamborghini of cats. It’s the fastest, but it’s also one of the sleekest, coolest and most ridiculous. Just like the Lamborghini doesn’t care to be a bit dangerous for a bit more speed, oomph or fear, neither does the cheetah.
You know how most cats have retractable claws? They have little tendons attached to each individual blade of their murder-mittens so that when they are not hunting, climbing, scratching, etc. they can put them away to protect themselves and others? Yeah cheetahs don’t (well, not really. They’re semi-retractable)!
Why not? Well like everything in biology we don’t really know but the likelihood is how it hunts. When you have an efficient killing machine the last thing you want is an extra layer of shit-what-can-go-wrong and a cheetah’s claws accidentally retracting when it’s turning almost 90° at 40-50mph trying to catch a gazelle – well that could kill it. If its claws are always out, there’s no danger of that happening. It’s always got grip.
I’ve mentioned their massively oversized chests already, needed for housing the lungs that gasp oxygen into this champion sprinter.
Nobody, though, can sprint well with a bad back, especially nobody running on all fours. This is another exceptional thing about cheetah anatomy. If you think your cat is flexible because it can gracefully lick his own nuts, the domestic cat, Felis catus, has nothing on the cheetah.
You might think it is the cheetah’s long, gangly legs, with their semi-retractable claws that give it its speed-advantage but, nope. Their spines are like coiled springs, and the flexion and extension, the bending, of their spine is the single biggest cause of the cat’s speed. At full sprint they’re basically intermittently flying, rather than running.
Never mind the other muscular-skeletal factors such as shoulderblades detached from the clavicle (collar-bone) and hips that can pivot in ways that would make Strictly Come Dancing (or Dancing with the Stars if you’re from the US) judge’s blush. These are fucking magnificently honed animals. True specialists, but not merely for speed – certainly not in a straight line anyway.
No, what cheetahs are best at is speed mixed with agility. They’ve got speed where it really counts, in the corners.
Especially when you add in that tail – what’s the purpose of the tail? Well I hinted at it with the gif in the introduction article. The tail in animals usually acts as a counterweight, a balancing aid.
Think about you walking along a narrow ledge and how you might hold your arms out by your sides to do much the same job. It is a tool of proprioception (the sense of awareness of where ‘you’ are in terms of your body).
That’s what a cheetah’s tail is doing only at around 60mph, and potentially having to turn on the proverbial sixpence-or-dime to catch that Thompson’s gazelle speeding desperately away from it. If you watch the tail movement of a cheetah, mid-hunt, full sprint you will notice it almost acts as a rudder, as if to steer the cheetah.
Surely there’s nothing else about cheetah anatomy that could make it any cooler? Well, you know those dark eye rings that run into lines down the cheetah’s snout that make it look like it’s got cool make-up on?
There’s a theory that those do two things. One, reduce glare from the sun so as to better see the prey. Two, literally act like guidelines, like cross-hairs, to hone in on their prey.
This thing is a living, breathing, land-based murder missile. I love it!
The wonderful work of Professor Sarah Durant, literally to cheetahs what Jane Goodall is to chimps, has revealed that these adaptations give cheetahs somewhere in the region of a 50-60% hunting success rate. Of an observed 192 chases, 114 kills – 58% hunting success rate by her observations. That’s close to the black-footed cat, which we put as the most efficient killer in the felidae.
That’s fucking unbelievable.
What they’re not so good at, sadly, is being parents. Cheetahs that survive into adulthood generally do quite well for themselves but an awful lot of cheetah mortality is in cubs. Usually under 20% will survive to adolescence with competition with lions accounting for the greatest number of these, but disease, weather and other predators account for a lot, too.
On the positive side, studies do show that the older a female cheetah gets the more successful she is at raising cubs, her first few litters being the most at risk.
But still I must reiterate;
The single biggest threat to cheetah populations is not their finely honed, highly evolved hunting specificity. Some people want to claim this, that they’re ‘too specialised to survive’! Go tell that to sharks, dickhead, they’ve had the same basic design since before dinosaurs were around. Their success at hunting shows what a nonsensical argument that is.
They work, cheetahs work, the cheetah morphology is not too good for its own good – it is just damn good!
With proper numbers, high-infant mortality is a lot more sustainable. Many species have larger litters with low survivability. They just need more breeding pairs.
With increased population, and aiding by human outbreeding schemes to create genetic diversity their problems with their genetics can, with time and good-old slow evolution, be overcome.
No – The single biggest threat to the cheetah is you, and me, and humans in general.
Source: If it’s research between 1970-date and to do with cheetahs I can guarantee Professor Sarah Durant is involved in some way. A massive shout-out to her for all the hard work she has put in for cheetahs, for wildlife in general and for being literally every source I could find when researching cheetahs as an undergrad.
Oh, and cheetahs purr.
As if they couldn’t get any better!