This Caturday is, ironically, a day late, in spite of the fact that it can reach speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. I'm in the middle of a move, which will be concluded this weekend, gods willing, and means that we don't have to deal with the jerk downstairs playing his sound system so loudly it registers on a seismic level.
The Cheetah (Acionyx jubatus) can be found in most parts of Africa and in the Middle East. It is the only extant member of the genus Acionyx. Acionyx is Greek, meaning "no move claw," and refers to the Cheetah's unusual characteristic semi-retractable claws. Jubatus is Latin, meaning "crested" or "maned." "Cheetah" is derived from the Sanskrit word citrakayah, which means variegated (differently colored), via the Hindi word cita.
The Cheetah has evolved to produce a physicality enables it to run at extremely high speeds, making it one of the fastest animals on land. It has a narrow, tapered waist and a deep chest, a small head and a flexible spine. They can weigh up to 159 pounds (72 Kg) and can measure 59 inches (150 cm) in body length, with a 33-inch (84 cm) tail. Males are, on average, slightly larger than females but gender variation in size is less pronounced in Cheetahs than in other large cats.
There are five generally-recognized subspecies of Cheetah, categorized by their home ranges:
- Acionyx jubatus jubatus (Southern Africa, including Botswana, Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Namibia)
- Acionyx jubatus venaticus (Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Formerly found, but currently extinct in India, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Saudia Arabia, Oman, Syria and Russia)
- Acionyx jubatus hecki (Northwest and Western Africa, including Djibouti, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Egypt, Niger, Tunisia, Morocco, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ghana and Senegal)
- Acionyx jubatus raineyii (Eastern Africa, including Somalia, Kenya and Uganda)
- Acionyx jubatus soemmeringii (Central Africa, including the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Sudan)
Other subspecies of Cheetah have been described but discarded, like the King Cheetah and the Woolly Cheetah, because those specific color and coat variations have been discovered to be the result of recessive genes rather than being a characteristic of a distinct subspecies.
Most of the Cheetah's prey consists of animals that weigh 88 pounds (40 Kg) or less, including Thompson's gazelle, impala, Grant's gazelle, springbok and young wildebeests and zebras. Cheetahs are diurnal hunters, most active when their prey is most active. The dark tear tracks under their eyes help to reduce the glare of the sun and allow them to see farther in bright sunlight. Cheetahs will stalk their prey, creeping as close as they can to grazing animals without being detected, usually within 10 to 30 meters. They will then give chase when their target bolts, and the hunt is usually over within a minute. The Cheetah's claws allow it to grip the ground, and its long tail acts as a balance for sharp turns. If a Cheetah's hunt is not successful almost immediately, it will give up to save energy, and resume hunting a different target. They have about a 50% success rate.
Female Cheetahs will give birth to a litter of 3 to 5 cubs, although litter sizes as large as nine have been recorded. Their gestation period lasts 90 to 98 days. Cheetah cubs are born with a mantle, extra fur around their necks, going down their backs. This extra fur is shed as they grow older, and it's theorized that this mantle aids the cubs in camouflage. Cubs stay with their mother, learning how to hunt, until they are about thirteen to twenty months old. Females will typically set off on their own, but male cubs will sometimes stay together after leaving their mother.
Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (African subspecies threatened, Asian subspecies critical). They are under threat due to predation from other carnivores, competition with human agriculture and development, poaching, and low genetic diversity. This last cause is still being studied, as genetic studies have revealed that Cheetahs have had low genetic diversity for thousands of years. Genetic monomorphism didn't hinder the Cheetah as it expanded and flourished in two continents since the last ice age, which suggests that there are other factors that are contribute to the Cheetah's fragile population. A breeding program has been proposed in India, with the intent to re-introduce the species to that country.