The cheetah - or "duma" as it is known in Kiswahili - is my favourite member of the cat family (Felidae). However, it is not typical of the family, hence it being of the genus "Acinonyx", of which the species "jubatus" (the cheetah) is the only current surviving member.
Unusually (but not uniquely) for a member of the cat family, cheetahs have non-retractable claws (its feet are more like a dog than a cat) - hence the genus name "Acinonyx" which means "no-move-claw" in Greek. You might be able to see the non-retractable claws, and how the foot looks more like that of a canid (member of the dog family), from my photo below:
Also, unlike the other wild African cats (e.g. lions, leopards), cheetahs are much less aggressive so can become tame - as you will see if you read on. In fact, they are real scaredy-cats who will normally run away from you if you confront one (though I don't recommend you test this!) so they rarely pose a threat to adult humans.
Whilst cheetahs do make the growling, hissing, spitting and yowling noises that you'd associate as vocalisations typical of the cat family, they make some different noises too: particularly a weird, bird-like, chirping noise that they use to locate one another. However, cheetahs do purr like crazy when happy! Indeed, the cheetah that you can see me interacting with below was purring away during our interactions - a bit confusing when you suddenly remember this is not your average lap top moggy!
As an aside, the cheetah in the photos was not quite a year old and female. She was found as an orphan cub and taken on by Hammerstein Lodge (where I was staying in November 2006) in Namibia. She (like a lot of captive cheetahs) was extremely tame and affectionate and had full roam of the lodge, much to the consternation of some of the guests! However, she was our best buddy during our stay and even came to visit me by the poolside and seemed to like the taste of the chlorinated pool water!
On our last day, said cheetah managed to get into our room and decided she rather liked my friend's bed upon which she proceeded to lay and roll around, again purring very loudly (I so wish we'd had our cameras to hand)! We were very sad to say goodbye to her, along with a zebra with whom I'd made friends too! Though I don't recommend you befriend a zebra unless a) you are very cognisant of animal ethology (behaviour); particularly of that species of equid which can be rather unpredictable!
Ta muchly to my friend, Frank Hollis (also a photographer), who took these photos whilst I was the wrong side of the camera!
The cheetah is probably best known as being the fastest land mammal, largely assisted by various evolutionary adaptations such as its non-retractable claws (which give it traction) and its long and powerful tail (which helps it balance, especially on turns). However, cheetahs can only maintain top speed (around 75 mph) for short bursts of time and their claws make it nearly impossible for them to climb trees, so they are very much a dweller of plains like the Serengeti where they can use their speed to their advantage! However, you will very often see them use things like termite mounds as lookout points!
Although female cheetahs (there is no special name for the female) reach maturity at about 2 years of age, the male (no name for the male either) reaches maturity at just about 1 year old. Cheetahs have a life spanning around 12 years in the wild but can live to around 20 years in captivity.
Despite the age at which each gender of cheetah matures, neither tends to breed until they are around 3 years old, after which mating occurs at any time throughout the year. Females are sexually promiscuous (tend to have cubs from different males) and give birth after a gestation period of around 13-14 weeks. The litter size can be up to 5 cubs and they are born with their spots! The Mum gradually teaches her cubs hunting and life skills (dad plays no part in bringing them up) up to when the cubs are about 1.5 years of age. She then leaves them and returns to her solitary life, only broken by brief liaisons for mating and, probably therefore, more cubs!
The young cubs stay in what is called a "sibling group" - with their brother/s and sister/s - for about 6 months. At that time, any females in the group will be around 2 years old and will leave to commence their solitary life. The males, however, stay together in the group for life. So, females are solitary - they live and hunt alone unless they are with a mate or have cubs! However, males are sociable to the point that a lone male cub will, if he has no brothers upon his sister or sisters leaving, hunt around for other males to form what is known as a "coalition" rather than be alone. In fact, the collective name for any group of cheetahs is a "coalition".
Talking of cubs, whilst you can't easily tell apart the genders - they are sexually amorphous (like one another) as opposed to sexually dimorphous (different!), though the male is slightly larger - you can tell the youngsters easily from their elders! This is because the cubs are born with a "mantle" - a furry bit at the back of their neck going down their back a bit. Perhaps you can see it in my photo of a young cheetah below...
Cheetahs are very territorial: male coalitions will try to find a territory that overlaps with the "home range" of several (solitary) females. Territory marking is undertaken by the whole male coalition and done via urinating on projecting objects such as logs, trees, rocks and termite mounds! Males defend their territory fiercely and disputes can end in death. Females don't really have territories - just an area in which they hang out, hence the use of the term "home range". A female's home range overlaps with other females' ranges; the other females often being daughters, mothers and sisters.
Cheetahs are sight hunters; they don't use scent. Thus they are diurnal (as opposed to nocturnal) and hunt by day, usually near dawn or dusk to avoid the heat. They are carnivores and their pray tends to be either the smaller mammals such as Thomson's Gazelle and impala; or the young of larger mammals such as wildebeest and zebra. They will also eat fowl and hares.
Cheetahs stalk their intended prey to get as close to it as possible without "spooking" it and making it run away. They do this so they don't have to run so far to get to it and therefore reduce the chance of it escaping. For, unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs do not have the stamina to run for long distances - they are merely sprinters rather than long-distance runners. Cheetahs have evolved for a swift kill - which therefore requires swift acceleration up to a short burst of high speed - not a kill that relies on gradually tiring out their prey by keeping up a slower speed over a longer distance. Such fast acceleration and speed uses up a lot of energy and the metabolic effects are so great that the cheetah would overheat and die from heat exhaustion if it tried to carry on past a certain critical point. So, if the cheetah hasn't made its kill at that point, it simply stops and has to rest up, sometimes for an hour, before trying again.
Once a cheetah has decided to move in for the chase, then comes its infamous acceleration and speed; the strategy being to attempt to trip up the prey in order to latch onto its neck and suffocate it. I've not seen from the start of the chase to the kill lasting for longer than a minute - it almost feels like "blink and you'd miss it" - so you have to be speedy with your camera as I had to be when taking one of my photos below (which, given what I said earlier about solitary females and ages, is likely to be two males (hunting a Thomson's Gazelle in this case and yes they were successful)):
As with most predators, hunting success is by no means certain. A cheetah will fail to catch about half the prey it chases. Not only for that reason it fails: once caught, the prey has to be eaten quickly because the cheetah is the under-cat in the world of African predators. It will give up its prey even to a lone hyaena to avoid an injury that could prevent the cheetah running - and eating therefore - perhaps resulting in it dying from starvation or, more likely, simply weakening to the point it makes easy prey for lyons or hyaenas from which a cheetah would normally successfully run.
Finally, why the dark lines - "tear marks" - down a cheetah's face like as shown below?
Well, an old Zulu story tells of a nasty and lazy hunter who watched a cheetah kill some prey and saw her return to a clearing with her kill. When he saw her cubs there waiting to greet her and their food, he got the idea to steal them and train them to hunt for him. So when mother cheetah left her cubs to go to the waterhole later that day, the hunter took the cubs. When the mother returned and could not find her cubs despite chirping and chirping to find them, it broke her heart. She cried and cried until the tears made dark stains down her cheeks. Although an old man returned the cubs to her and the hunter was driven away from the tribe, the long weeping of the mother had stained her face forever. So the cheetah has the tear-stains as a reminder to hunters that it is not honorable to hunt in any way other than by using your own strength and skill. There is another story about how a cheetah was crying because lions told her she was not a cat and wild dogs told her she was not a dog, so she felt she didn't fit in anywhere...
In reality, the tear-marks are said to have evolved to help reduce the glare from the sun to help fine-hone the cheetah's vision during hunting - because they hunt diurnally. A side-benefit (for us anyway) is it helps us easily identify them from leopards because that species of cat does not have the tear-marks. Leopard spots are also different to cheetah spots as you can see from the photos below:
Some rare cheetahs exist that have a mutation pattern of much larger blotchy black unusual-looking patches and stripes - these are called "King Cheetahs" (this is not a sub-species). I can't show you a photo because I haven't seen one to photograph it! However, you can see photos of the via the first link in the list below. I have always wanted to see a King Cheetah; who knows, perhaps one day I will...
Below are some excellent resources about cheetahs: