Learn everything about what makes the cheetah so remarkable and unique.

Cheetah Biology

The cheetah is a truly unique animal. Being the world's fastest land animal, it is built for speed. At accelerating from 0 to 84 km/hr in just 3 seconds, and with top speed of 110 km/hr, means that the cheetah can out-perform a sports car. Cheetahs are markedly different in both anatomy and behavior from the other 36 species of cats. They are the only species in their genus. They have evolved for speed versus power and aggression. Their bodies are lightweight in comparison with the build of other big cats. They rely on their speed and skills for survival. The genus name, Acinonyx, is interpreted as “non-moving claws”, referring to their semi-retractable claws. The species name, “jubatus”, means “maned”, referring to the mantle on a young cheetah’s back. The English word, “cheetah”, comes from the Hindu word “chita” meaning the “spotted one”.

Cheetah Biology


One of the most incredible things about the cheetahs is the remarkable processes and transitions in their lifecycle. From born at an average weight of 350 grams and completely helpless and unable to see, to becoming one of the most skilled predators and the fastest land animal on the planet, nothing speaks more about the incredible adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive in the challenging environments where they live.

The Cycle of Life

There are four stages in the lifecycle of the cheetah.

Stage 1: 90 to 95 days pregnancy; Stage 2: 6 weeks to 18 months;

Stage 3: 18 to 22 months; Stage 4: adult life.

lifecycle diagram

Stage 1

Cheetah cubs are born blind, so they need their mother's care.

Cheetah cubs are born blind, so they need their mother's care.

The female’s gestation period lasts 90 to 95 days. This means she is pregnant for about three months.

Shortly before she is ready to give birth, the mother makes a den in a quiet hidden spot. She chooses her location in the tall grass and thick underbrush or near a clump of rocks.

A cheetah gives birth to an average of five to six cubs. Each cub weights between 250 to 425 grams. Cubs are born completely helpless and with their eyes closed, but they develop rapidly. Scent and touch are used to find their mother’s nipples to suckle.

They start crawling around the nest area at four to ten days when their eyes begin to open. At three weeks their teeth break through the gums.

A mother cheetah will frequently move her litter. This prevents a build-up of scent of the den site, which may lead other predators to the cubs. She carries very young cubs in her jaws.

The cubs are very vulnerable to lions, hyenas and other predators when the female leaves them alone. When hunting she may be away for up to 48 hours. In Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, 90% of all cubs do not reach the age of 3 months! Other causes of death are abandonment when prey is scarce, exposure due to low temperatures or grass fires.

Stage 2

At 1.5 to 2 months of age, the cubs leave the safety of the den to accompany their mother. They are very vulnerable as they are not able to defend themselves.

They stop drinking their mother’s milk at 3 to 4 months of age. They start eating meat and learning to hunt. The games they play and the experiences they have during this stage will teach them skills needed to survive on their own.

Learning to Hunt

Cheetah cubs learning how to hunt.

Cheetah cubs learning how to hunt.

Learning to Hunt

The mother brings live prey, such as a young gazelle, to the 9 to 12 month old cubs. She releases it in front of them and the cubs attempt to catch it. This allows the cubs to practice their hunting skills while still under her supervision. Accurate timing and coordination during a hunt are important for their future survival.

Stage 3

Stage three begins at the age 18 to 22 months when the cubs have grown to sub-adults and leave their mother. The sub-adults will remain together for up to six more months. At first, their success rate at capturing prey is poor.

Cheetahs are diurnal, hunting mornings and early evenings. They rely on their sight to find prey. They spend most of the day resting under shady trees or on termite mounds. Night hunting is only done during a bright moon.

What is diurnal?

Stage 4

In Stage 4, cheetahs become sexually mature. Although they are mature at 16 to 18 months, most do not breed until they are three to five years old.

At 20 - 30 months of age, females leave their litter-mates to find suitable mates and start their own families. They raise their families on their own without the help of the males.

Males usually do not breed until they are 4 to 5 years of age, and dominant in a territory. They live alone, or brothers form permanent groups called "coalitions". These groups stay together for life, claim territories, hunt and find mates together.

Finding a Mate

Cheetahs often mark their scent on tree trunks with their urine. This behavior is common among cats.

Cheetahs often mark their scent on tree trunks with their urine. This behavior is common among cats.

The range of a female offspring may partially overlap that of her mother. Namibian cheetahs are more social than those reported in other countries. Females are often seen with multiple adults and cubs of varying ages.

Female cheetahs are polyoestrous, which means there is no regular breeding season. If not bred, females come into heat (estrus) several times a year. Estrus means they are ready to breed. If cubs are lost to predators females soon come into estrus again.

Smell, sound, and behavioral stimuli attract males to females. Female cheetahs leave a scent trail by releasing sex hormones in urine and feces. They mark trees and bushes. This behavior increases during courtship.

When courtship takes place, males will follow females closely and mock fighting may be observed.

When a female is ready to mate, she adopts a receptive posture. The male mounts the female, bites the back of her neck, and breeding takes place. When the male dismounts the female she rolls over on her back and swats at him.

Mating will take place for one to several days and ends when the male loses interest in the female and leaves. Males do not help raise the cubs.

Living Fast - Dying Young

Male coalitions

A coalition consists of a group of male siblings of the same litter or young unrelated males that have joined together. A hierarchy develops among the males within a coalition.

Young males are usually chased away from their birth range by dominant breeding males. They may establish home ranges more than 100 km away. A coalition is more successful in acquiring and holding territories and in defending kills than single males. This competition can result in mortality among males.

A coalition of cheetahs on the lookout.

A coalition of cheetahs on the lookout.

Cheetahs often have to come to face hyenas in competition of food.

Cheetahs often have to come to face hyenas in competition of food. (Image credit: Steve Volkwyn)


The cheetah’s lifespan is poorly documented in the wild. A radio collared cheetah lived to be almost 7 years of age in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, and one of CCF’s radio collared cheetahs in Namibia lived for over 10 years.

Adult mortality is one of the most significant limiting factors for cheetah population growth and survival. Poaching, competition with large predators and farmers, and loss of habitats and prey are factors attributing to early death.

Though cub deaths are high, cheetahs have evolved to reproduce rapidly in response to this mortality.


The uniqueness of the cheetah is not made up of a single trait, but rather a set of traits in its physiology that can be observed from all parts of its body. The skull provides room for jaw muscle needed to tear up meat. The spine provides the flexibility it needs to reach its incredible speeds. The feet and claws facilitate in running, sharp turning, and hunting. The tail provides the balance it needs while pursuing a prey. Read on to discover all the fascinating points about the species' anatomy and physiology.


All parts of the cheetah's body work in unison during a high speed run, and the sum of each of their role together is greater than the individual parts. Explore the illustration below to learn about the role and function of each highlighted body part.

Spots and Stripes

Adult cheetahs are easily distinguished from other cats by their coat patterns. The color and spots are a form of camouflage. This helps cheetahs hunt prey and hide from other predators.

Distinctive black tear stripes run from the eyes to the mouth. The stripes are thought to protect the eyes from the sun’s glare. It is believed they have the same function as a rifle scope, helping cheetahs focus on their prey.

Until three months of age, cheetah cubs have a thick-silvery grey mantle that runs down their back. The mantle helps camouflage the cubs by blending them into the shadows and grass. It also provides protection from sun and rain.

With their mantle, cubs look like an aggressive animal called a honey badger. This may deter predators such as lions, hyenas, and eagles from attempting to kill them. This is known as “mimicry”.

What is camouflage?
Mantle on cheetah cub's back provides a form of camouflage that's critical to its survival.

Mantle on cheetah cub's back provides a form of camouflage that's critical to its survival.

The cheetah's mantle also provides a form of “mimicry” that it can use to deter predators.

The cheetah's mantle also provides a form of “mimicry” that it can use to deter predators.


All predators have specialized features for catching and killing prey. Predators have large forward facing eye sockets, and large ear cavities that provides space for specialized senses. Although there are differences in skull proportions, carnivore skulls are quite similar.

The cat skulls are different from other carnivore species, as they have a flatter nose and enlarged nasal cavity. In addition, there is significant room at the back for holding the strong jaw muscles.

The cheetah's skull has some features that are distinct when compared to the skulls of other cats.

Feet and Claws

The paws of the cheetah have a distinct shape compared to some of the other carnivores.

The paws of the cheetah have a distinct shape compared to some of the other carnivores.


Cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded than the other cats. The pads function like tire threads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns.


The short blunt claws work like the cleats on a track shoe. They grip the ground for traction when running and help increase speed. Cheetah’s claws are semi-retractable, meaning they do not completely retract like the claws of other cats. The foot structure of the cheetah is very dog-like.

Compare the cheetah's claws to that of the dogs and other cats, it's somewhere in between in terms of retractability.

Compare the cheetah's claws to that of the dogs and other cats, it's somewhere in between in terms of retractability.

Cheetah dewclaw.

Cheetah dewclaw.


The dewclaws of the cheetah are located on the upper inside area of the front foot. These are sharp and frequently used to hook and hold prey.

Heart and Lung

The cheetah has a strong heart that rapidly pumps large amounts of oxygenated blood from the lungs to the muscles to keep them supplied with energy while running.

Large lungs provide adequate oxygen for a cheetah’s increased energy needs while pursuing its prey. The cheetah’s respiratory rate climbs from 60 to 150 breathes per minute, nearly twice as fast as humans.

Cheetahs have enlarged nostrils and sinuses allowing an increase in air flow to the lungs.

High speeds can, however, only be maintained for 400 - 800 meters before exhaustion sets in and the body risks overheating.

Cheetah run illustration

A cheetah running the 249 km from Otjiwarongo to Windhoek would need to stop to rest more than 311 times.

If it could run there without resting, it would take 2 hours and 26 minutes at 110 km/hr.

Body and Bone

Cheetah body measurements


The cheetah’s body is narrow and lightweight with long, slender limbs. Specialized muscles allow a greater swing to the limbs, increasing acceleration.


The cheetah’s long muscular tail works as a rudder, stabilizing and acting as a counter balance to its body weight. This allows sudden sharp turns during high speed chases. The tail is also thought to be a signaling device, helping young cheetahs follow their mother in tall grass. The tip may be black or white in color.

The cheetah's tail is responsible for controlling balance during a high speed run.


The extreme flexibility of the cheetah’s spine is unique. This allows more extension during running, thus making both its stride length and speed possible. If the spine were stiff and the pectoral and pelvic girdles were firmly attached, the cheetah would not be able to reach 100 km / hr. The hips (pelvic girdle) pivot to increase the cheetah’s stride length. This allows the front and rear legs to stretch further apart when the body is fully extended. The hips and shoulders move closer together when the feet come under its body. The shoulder bone (pectoral girdle) does not attach to the collarbone, thus allowing the shoulders to move freely. This increases the length of the stride.

The cheetah's flexible spine is a major contributing factor to its body dexterity, long strides, and speed.

The cheetah's flexible spine is a major contributing factor to its body dexterity, long strides, and speed.

Open Wide

Open wide

The cheetah takes smaller prey than other similar sized cats. Their strong jaws lock around the throat of the prey in what is called the “strangulation hold”, which can last up to 20 minutes.

Cheetahs’ jaws are not as powerful as that of lions or leopards. Cheetahs have comparatively shorter canine teeth. In all cats, powerful muscles move the jaw up and down and provide vice-like strength for gripping prey.

Papillae on cheetah's tongue

The tongue is adopted for licking and is covered with small hard spines called papillae. The papillae act like a rasp, removing the meat from the bones of the prey. Rough tongue feels similar to the texture of sandpaper.

Cheetah grooming

Keeping the fur clean is an important part of a cheetah’s life. Family members spend many hours grooming each other with their tongues. This behavior aids in the social bonding of a cheetah group.

Rip and Tear

The three types of teeth of the cheetah: the incisors, canines, and carnassial.

The three types of teeth of the cheetah: the incisors, canines, and carnassial.

The cheetah’s teeth are adapted to support their eating style. By eating fast, cheetahs avoid losing their prey to other predators.

The canines, “eye teeth” or “fangs”, are used for gripping and hold while the prey is being suffocated. Cheetah’s canines are smaller and less developed than those of the lion or leopard.

The incisors, “front teeth”, are used for plucking fur and skinning the carcasses. Straight and strong incisors are essential for quick access to the meat of the prey.

The carnassial, “back teeth” or “pre molars”, work in scissor like fashion and enable the cheetah to shear large pieces of flesh which are quickly swallowed whole. When using these teeth during feeding, cheetahs hold their heads sideways at an angle to the carcass. These blade like teeth are similar to the lion’s and leopard’s. They do not have the same function as chewing meat as those of the jackal or crushing bones like those of the hyenas.


Cheetahs communicate in many ways including sound, smell, touch, and sight. Communications may be either threatening or submissive.



Cheetahs have many unusual vocalizations. These are some of the most common calls made by cheetahs.

  • Purr - as with domestic cats this sound indicates a friendly and contended mood.
  • Chirp - A high pitched bird-like chirp is used by a mother calling her cubs, cheetahs greeting each other and during courtship. These calls can be heard over a long distance. The intensity of the chirp increases with excitement.
  • Stutter call - A male on the trail of a female in heat will use this call. It is also used by a mother asking her cubs to follow closely.
  • Growling, hissing - These sounds are associated with defense and aggression. With these vocalizations, they may lunge and slap the ground, alternatively crouching and growling.
  • Bleating - This sound expresses distress and is similar to meowing.
  • Inn-inn - This call is used by a mother to summon her young and alternates with chirping.


Cheetahs exhibit a number of physiological abnormalities because of the genetic bottlenecks that the species have gone through in its history and evolution, with the most recent one being only about 10,000 years ago. Therefore, understanding the genetics of the species is crucial in both saving individuals as well as larger populations.

Genetic Confusion

How does this relate to the cheetah?

Cheetahs are very closely related and have a low genetic diversity. This is due to the drastic reduction in their numbers when the population bottleneck occurred. Inbreeding and low genetic diversity may cause abnormalities.

Genes are the components of living cells that pass down inherited characteristics such as brown eyes or curly hair in humans.

Genetic diversity is the variety of genes in an organism or in a population. Diversity increases the likelihood that a given species can adapt and survive catastrophes such as sudden environmental changes or exposure to new diseases.

Diversity is reduced when inbreeding occurs. This means members of the same family or close relatives breed only among themselves.


CCF collects data to monitor cheetah genetics, physical qualities and reproduction. Body measurements, blood, and skin samples help evaluate overall health. CCF has recorded the following abnormalities in wild Namibian cheetahs.

Crowded Lower Incisors

Cheetahs use their front teeth (incisors) to rapidly skin their prey. Some cheetahs have very crowded and crooked front teeth. This abnormality decreases the amount of meat the cheetah can quickly eat before another predator steals the kill.

Birth Defects

Congenital (Genetic) Birth Defects, such as five legged and two-headed cubs are often reported in cheetahs and cause high infant mortality. Defects are a result of low genetic diversity. This problem is also reported in other inbred species.

Focal Palatine Erosion

This abnormality occurs when the lower molar (back teeth) damage and break through the upper palate (roof of mouth). Dental impressions and skull X-rays allow CCF to relate problems with information on genetics, health, diet, and geographic origin of affected cheetahs. Palatine erosion is reported in both captive and wild cheetahs and can lead to fatal infection.

Abnormal Sperm

A high frequency of sperm abnormalities (71%) first alerted researchers to the genetic problems of cheetahs. Cheetahs have a very low sperm count - 10 times lower than a domestic cat. Sperm abnormalities usually indicate a high level of inbreeding in the population. Cheetahs breed normally despite this problem and long term monitoring will follow their success rate.

Kinked Tails

Crooked tails have been recorded in 19% of the Namibian cheetahs evaluated since 1995. This is the first documentation of this abnormality in wild cheetahs and could be linked to a lack of genetic diversity.

Kinked tail.

Kinked tail. (Image credit: Cheetah Conservation Fund)