Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah, Acinonyx pardinensis

A comparison of a modern cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus – foreground) and the giant cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis – background) based on a sketch by Mauricio Anton – (Credit: Source unknown, used without permission.)

If you’ve been following my cat content you will know that my all-time favourite cat is the cheetah. I put domestic cat as number one in our Top Ten Cats list because, besides the lion, no other cat is as synonymous with human culture. As far as I am aware lions did not domesticate themselves by taking care of small rodent or bird species that would steal grain from our grain stores.

Without successful agricultural practices humans would not have blossomed to become the ever-growing boil on the arse of nature we are today – so we owe a small part of that success to our domestic feline friends.

Lions could easily top the list, having a lengthy history of association with human culture. Tigers are another close favourite of mine, and used to run cheetahs very close but…In a running race, you ain’t gonna beat a cheetah!

So they’re my favourite. Their adaptations, their attitudes, their behaviours, their history, their hunting! Oh my god, their hunting! Like a carnal, brutal, beautiful, balletic, athletic dance to the death – It’s fucking sexy, okay! I can’t apologise for being a child of the Brutal Beauty, I’m erotically embowered in this savage garden and I find it hot!

Yup, fucking sexy! The way it moves, responds and reacts. This is predation in all its beauty. Few are the species on this planet that can match the dancing sprint chase of the cheetah. The chase, the grip, the trip, the bite, the lethal kiss on the neck! It’s so good! (Credit: BBC via giphy)

But now is a good chance to talk about adaptation.

That shouldn’t be a foreign word to any English speaker – adaptation is just something changing. In biology it is usually referring to evolutionary changes that allow an organism to better suit its environment.

Just bonobos (Pan paniscus) doing bonobo shit. Bonobos fuck! They’re little fuckers. Want to say hello? Have a little fuck. Want to resolve a conflict? A good fuck’ll do. Saying sorry? Why not say it with your genitals! This type of sociosexual behaviour is absolutely fascinating. In many ways humans exhibit a lot of similar behaviours, albeit tangled up in the psychosexual mess that comes with consciousness, ethics and learning. (Credit: Rob Bixby CC-BY-2.0)

In your own case you can look at our nearest living relatives, chimps and bonobos. At one time in our evolutionary history it is likely human ancestors had a similar lifestyle. They had similarly long, lithe, tree-adapted limbs, those weird hand-like feet a lot of primates have, big swinging arms and generally built like brick-shithouses. If you’ve never seen a hairless chimp they’re fucking shredded! Like, even captive ones have got that weird, cut, Bruce Lee-muscle going on! They will fucking batter you!

But humans adapted.

This usually happens because of some kind of selection pressure, or opportunity. Perhaps there were too many large apes in our neck of the woods and resources were scarce? Perhaps there were just vast plains of fruits, roots and shoots going unexploited.

The exact circumstances of how humans adapted is a relative unknown, with multiple theories but ultimately we got this beast! Bipedal; compare the hip bones of a chimp to a human and you can see the way we hold our bones has moved to facilitate standing upright. Our feet are less dextrous, less hand-like, and have instead become supports for that bipedal stance. What this has done is allow us to free our hands. No longer the elongated branch-graspers they once were they became gathering tools, digging tools, crafting tools and weapons platforms.

Let some more time pass and now we use our hands to do all sorts of things but mainly scroll twitter on our smartphones and masturbate – That’s adaptation!

That’s a lot of words without even talking about a cat but I figured it’d be easier to describe adaptation to you with an example you’re familiar with because otherwise all I can say is “Like a cheetah but bigger” about the Giant Cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis).

A size comparison to a human figure. It is an interpretation slightly different to the one in the opening image. The giant cheetah was likely only around 20-30cm taller at the shoulder than its living relative, however it would have been much longer and almost twice as massive (weighing around 80-100kg). That length is the major takeaway! Being nearly 2m from nose-to-rump with an extra 1.5m of tail this was a long cat! (Credit: Prehistoric-wildlife.com, used without permission)

And from all the fossil evidence we have that’s the long-and-short of it! It’s like a cheetah but bigger, adapted for all the same things, but bigger. Naturally since it was larger it is theorised it was slower. I’d argue that’s a difficult one to say for sure – Usain Bolt is one big, lanky bastard but he made a hell of a sprinter!  

Otherwise the same adaptations as the regular cheetah are there; Shorter muzzle, increased nasal cavity size for sucking in air (because cheetahs breathe as they sprint, unlike humans).

An upper skull of a giant cheetah. You can see the flat muzzle, giving it enlarged nasal cavities. You can also see the short, squat canine. The carnassial teeth – at the back – as well as the structure of the head and jaw seem to indicate this cat had a strong bite and would have been capable of crushing bone, but the conditions of a lot of the carnassial teeth seem to suggest they did not do this. Likely eating as much of their kill’s flesh as quickly as possible before it got scavenged or stolen. (Credit: Ghedoghedo CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Interlude:
I didn’t really cover this in the cheetah article so I’d like to go through it here. Cheetahs, like many ‘sprinter’ quadrupeds (four-legged animals) do not knowingly breathe whilst sprinting. That is to say it is not breathing necessarily via the same action it would use when just laying down or having a slow wander.

Instead, the very motion, the flexion, during the sprint forces the air in-and-out. Whilst sprinting, think of a cheetah as a big pair of bellows!

They extend outwards to a huge length, facilitated by their very flexible spines. This changes the forces acting upon their thoracic (chest) and abdominal (gut) cavities. When fully stretched out it effectively pulls on the diaphragm (the muscle used to control breathing) to force air into the cat.

Then, when they pull that stride in they bundle themselves up into a taught ball, ready to explode out again. As they do so they compress everything up, forcing that diaphragm again and pushing the air out.

A diagram showing the proposed ‘forced breathing’ mechanism of a sprinting cheetah. The skeleton is outlined in blue, the thoracic (chest) cavity in red, the abdominal cavity in green and the diaphragm is between the thoracic and abdominal cavities. (Credit: Coluberssymbol CC-BY-SA 3.0)

So, what’s the deal? Why cat so big?

Because everything was bigger! We have evidence of giant cheetahs from the Early-to-Middle Pleistocene, that era when mammalian life on planet Earth was being huge and doing weird shit. It was world of rhinos and mammoths on the European plains, South America had sloths the size of people carriers and beavers the size of small bears!

It’s an excellent demonstration of adaptation. Whether these giant cheetahs were hunting larger prey than their extant African cousins or not they would have still faced competition from wolves, Eurasian cave lions, cave hyenas and other cats like Homotherium – the scimitar-toothed cats – that we’ve covered before.

Modern cheetahs are very selective, preferring Thomson’s gazelle over other prey. Whether the giant cheetah was as fussy is not known but they were probably busy tackling species larger than a Thomson’s gazelle – but they may have been opportunists.

A recreation of the head of a giant cheetah. There is debate as to whether or not its features would have been more puma-like, reflecting its lineage in that clade. (Credit:
Dawid A. Iurino CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Either way the selection pressures are there. When everything around you gets BIG your adaptation is likely to take one of two ways – Either grow larger in turn, so that you can compete with the other big life around you, or else find a niche, fill an opportunity, for being a bit smaller.

Well there was already a species filling the smaller niche – The cheetah. Yup, our beloved sprinter-cat dates back to the Pleistocene too, with the oldest fossils being in the region of 3 million years old. There was also a species in size somewhere between the two – Acinonyx intermedius (yup, points for originality on that name).

The giant cheetah is an exceptional example of adaptation at work. In many ways little different to its smaller, extant cousin and yet at the same time altered and changed to suit a slightly different habitat, lifestyle and different prey.

If there’s one thing I absolutely love about biology it is piecing together these little puzzles. Trying to figure out why something does what it does, or is as it is. Looking at the clues, comparing skeletons, anatomies, body forms, changes, sizes, little claws, their teeth – It’s a fascinating journey to go on.

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You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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