Amazing Animals; Cheetahs evolved springy spines and ultra-sensitive inner ears to outcompete their competitors
* Article appears on animalsasia.org and is republished with permission.*
Cheetahs are found in sub-Saharan Africa, where they roam grassy savannah plains and open forests.
They are social animals and can be found in groups, consisting of either a coalition of males who live and hunt together, or a mother and her youngsters. Females give birth to between two to eight cubs, and nurse their cubs in a lair hidden by tall vegetation, until they are 16 to 24 months old. When they are ready to leave their mums, the youngsters will often stay together as a sibling group for the next six months. Adult females, however, tend to be solitary and only meet with males to mate.
The cheetah is the fastest land animal, reaching a top speed of some 65 mph during short chases. Non-retractable claws and tough pads on their feet provide excellent traction to reach such high speeds, and a long heavy tail acts as a rudder for making sharp turns while in pursuit. The Cheetah’s long fluid body is set over extremely light bones, this accompanied with large nasal passages, and oversized lungs, liver, and heart enable rapid physical response. A strong spring-like spine gives added reach to the Cheetah’s long legs, and the cheetah averages 4 strides per second or 1 stride per .28 seconds, in comparison a horse averages 1 stride per .44 seconds.
Cheetahs are also equipped with several additional special features that are crucial in successful and efficient hunting. They have binocular vision, a very important asset as they rely on sight to hunt as opposed to scent. The retinal fovea of the eye is an elongated shape, giving a sharp wide-angle view, and the dark “tear marks” on the Cheetahs face reduce glare from the bright sun and aid in excellent vision.
And the Cheetahs' inner ear is one of a kind, and vital to high-speed hunting. The cheetah is a successful hunter not only because it is quick, but also because it can hold an incredibly still gaze while pursuing prey. An analysis of the cheetah's inner ear, an organ that is essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture during movement has found that it is unique to big cats.
As a cheetah runs its legs, its back, its muscles all move with coordinated power. But its head hardly moves at all. The inner ear facilitates the cheetah's remarkable ability to maintain this visual and postural stability. In the inner ear of vertebrates, the balance system consists of three semicircular canals that contain fluid and sensory hair cells that detect movement of the head. Each of the semicircular canals is positioned at a different angle and is especially sensitive to different movements: up and down, side-to-side, and tilting from one side to the other.
The inner ears of cheetahs differ markedly from those of all other big cats, with a greater overall volume of the vestibular system and longer anterior and posterior semicircular canals. This distinctive inner ear anatomy reflects enhanced sensitivity and more rapid responses to head motions, explaining the cheetah's extraordinary ability to maintain visual stability and to keep their gaze locked in on prey even during incredibly high-speed hunting.
Competition with other predators, probably constrained the cheetah to evolve this high-speed hunting strategy. The living cheetah's ancestors evolved slender bones that would allow them to run very fast and then an inner ear ultra sensitive to head movements to hold their head still, enabling them to run even faster.
Sadly, this beautiful animal is threatened by loss of habitat and prey, as well as conflict with humans. As a result, the cheetah is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
As human populations grow and expand, agriculture, roads, and settlements destroy the open grasslands that cheetahs favour leaving the cheetah to move on or be killed by farmers. Cheetahs encounter conflict with farmers when loss of their natural prey leads them to attack livestock resulting in farmers killing them in retaliation. There is also high cub mortality due to predation by carnivores like lions and hyenas that are in competition with the cheetah, as well as genetic inbreeding which leads to abnormalities. Live cheetahs are also caught and traded illegally to the pet trade and hunted for their skins.
The number of Cheetahs has consistently dropped from approximately 100,000 in 1900, to just 10,000 today becoming extinct in 18 countries of its original range, with less than 10,000 adults surviving in Africa and a meagre 50 in Asia, mainly around Iran’s Kavir desert. Due to the unavailability of land and food and the dangerous threat brought on by ranchers and poachers the Cheetah’s lifespan in the wild is 4-6 years, whereas in captivity the Cheetah can live to 10-15 years old.
A Namibian success story
The cheetah's future may look grim, but conservationists have been working to lessen the decline in some areas. In the early 1990's conservationists began educating livestock farmers around Namibia about how to reduce cheetah/livestock interactions and teaching farmers how to avoid conflict through breeding schedules and the use of guard dogs to protect livestock as alternatives to resorting to the rifle. These efforts, along with stronger enforcement of endangered species and anti-poaching laws and habitat restoration for the cheetah, have resulted in a stabilized Namibian population. For more details see;
Cheetahs in captivity
Cheetahs require specialised conditions in captivity to ensure that their physical and behavioural needs are being met. They are likely to suffer considerably if they are not provided with an environment which allows them to express their innate natural behaviours.
The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria have developed best practice management guidelines for keeping Cheetahs in captivity, these are available at
Good captive management practices for Cheetahs include those that provide the following conditions
does not provide the public with ‘handling’ and/or photo opportunities with Cheetahs
Provide large expanses of complex space for cheetahs to explore with the provision of high ‘vantage’ points and platforms for individuals to visually scan their environment, natural trees and bushes or artificial structures to act as ‘hiding’ places and a place to shelter from poor weather conditions, and logs for scratching
An environment that ensures the individuals stay both dry and warm, cheetahs do not survive well in damp, cold environments
soft substrates within both the indoor and outdoor enclosures to provide comfortable resting areas and natural warmth and put less pressure on the animal's joints
a diet which includes the provision of meat on the bone, this increases overall digestive health, slowing down the feeding process and necessitating the chewing action, and provides the cheetah with the opportunity to perform a natural feeding behaviour
male cheetahs should be kept in a group allowing them to express species-specific social behaviours such as grooming or resting next to each other
females can be housed with offspring, and/or in compatible female groups. If cubs are born they must be raised alongside the mother until their independence
A complex enrichment programmes which
allow animals to use their senses as they would in the wild, for example, olfactory enrichments include the provision of freshly collected animal faeces (from prey species) placed at random in different locations within the enclosure, and the introduction of other novel scents such as spices or adding liquefied odours onto clothes/sacks that are distributed inside of the enclosure
provides mental stimulation through the use of ‘hunting lures’ known as the ‘cheetah run’ which allow animals to carry out natural hunting behaviours
The enrichment practice of the "cheetah run" is becoming increasingly popular within zoological institutions as a method to enrich captive cheetahs. A lure moving at speed represents an artificial prey item that the cheetah can pursue, therefore allowing it to perform an important hunting behaviour within a captive setting.
For enrichment ideas and examples of ‘lures’ see: