Cheetahs Workshop Introduction

All Those Spotted Cats Look Alike

Cheetahs, Then and Now

All Those Spotted Cats Look Alike


Cheetah taxonomy seems to have more to do with the variety of landscapes in which they can live rather than on their own physical variations. These cats are very versatile and have been known to live in every type of habitat except for rain forest. Historical subspecies include:

Most of the subspecies designations are probably the result of over enthusiasm. The physical differences between them have been on the order of things like hair length and color variation, spot size and separation, and overall body size.

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There are most likely only two subspecies - the African cheetah (jubatus) and the Asiatic cheetah (venaticus). Given the current lack of evidence, even these subspecies classifications leave room for doubt. Asiatic Cheetahs haven't been studied much because there aren’t many of them left to study, and the region in which they live is inhospitable, both to the cats and to the people who would study them.

However, the differences between cheetah subspecies are no more than a nuance for people who still confuse cheetahs with other spotted cats such as leopards, jaguars, and even servals. To add fuel to the fire, cheetahs have been called Hunting Leopards in some older texts.

Cheetah classification has changed dramatically over the years, depending on the observations and beliefs of the time. They have been called Felis jubata, meaning cat with mane, and also Felis cynailurus or Cynofelis, meaning dog-like cat. Cheetahs do have several similarities to dogs, including their paw prints and the skinny “greyhound” waist, but cheetahs are not related to dogs. Their current classification is Acinonyx jubatus, where Acinonyx refers to non-retractable claws, and jubatus means having a mane. Cheetahs are the only cats classified as Acinonyx.

Ironically, one of the features most often used to separate cheetahs from the other cats, the non-retractable claws, is actually a myth, or at best a partial truth. Their claws are partially retractable, but only because of weaker ligaments. Cheetahs do have the ability to move their claws forward and back. Also, the absence of claw sheaths makes the claws appear to stick out farther. Because the claws are exposed, the nails wear down and tend to remain blunt. As a result, cheetah footprints usually include claw imprints - a contributing factor to the now defunct cat-dog hybrid myth.

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Because of the cheetahs somewhat extreme shape, they were originally classified as being an early divergence from the cat family tree. However, using a measure described as genetic distance, the cheetah is not the first cat species to split off. That distinction goes to the Clouded Leopard. Cheetahs turn out to be most closely related to the Temminck’s Golden Cat, the Caracal, and the Puma.

All cheetahs today are closely related to each other, but they are not identical. Even clones or genetically identical twins will have physical differences, but cheetahs are not even genetically identical. As an example of how they differ, every cheetah has a unique coat pattern, so no two cheetahs have the exact same spots or stripes. Researchers use this feature to help identify cheetahs observed in the field, using photos of the side of the face, or other local indicators such as the pattern of stripes on the tail.

Species Description

The most easily recognized marker on a cheetah is the black tear lines than run from the inner corners of the eyes to the outer corners of the mouth. Cheetahs are tan to pale yellow with a white underbelly, and with solid round black spots everywhere (including the face) – the largest being approximately 1/2 inch in diameter. Cheetahs have a mane of longer hairs around the neck and shoulders, but it's not much to see. Their ears are small and rounded with a black patch on the back. The tail, which is relatively long, has rings of stripes instead of spots and has a solid colored tip (but not a tuft like a lion tail). They have soft brown to amber eyes.

Even ignoring color and coat pattern entirely, cheetahs are easy to recognize by silhouette. The limbs are long and slim (proportionally longer than other cats). The body is deep chested, not heavily muscular, with a very lean abdomen that makes the cat appear to be starving all the time. The head is round, and proportionally small, with small rounded ears high on the sides of the head.

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Cheetahs range in size from 6 feet to 8 feet long, nose to tail tip, and weigh around 42 kg (about 92 pounds), with females being slightly smaller - on average about 5 kg smaller, or around 82 pounds.

Leopards and jaguars, the most common cats of confusion, are both larger, have green to yellow eyes, and rosette clusters rather than single spots. Neither has the distinct facial tear stripes. Servals can cause confusion because they also have solid spots and the hint of facial stripes, but servals are smaller and have a very different body type, including their unmistakable high towering ears.

Unlike cheetahs, the Panthera or Great Cats can roar. This is due to a difference in the hyoid, a “U” shaped bone right under the mandible (lower jaw). Cheetahs do not have this adaptation, so cheetahs (and also pumas) cannot roar, but as a result they can purr and do so quite often. The Great Cats cannot maintain a constant purr - they make a similar purring sound on exhale only. Cheetahs also vocalize through growling, hissing and spitting, just like a house cat. Most distinctively, both adults and cubs make a chirping noise that sounds quite a lot like a bird chirp.

Cheetah Variations

The King Cheetah

The most famous cheetah variation is the King Cheetah. The fur is a bit longer and silkier, and the spot pattern is strikingly different – large blotches and thick stripes instead of the usual small round spots. Because of this remarkably different appearance, the king cheetah was originally assumed to be a different species, possibly a cheetah and leopard hybrid. It has been called the Mazoe Leopard or the Cooper’s Cheetah, and was originally classified as Acinonyx rex. The king coat pattern occurs when both parents pass on the recessive gene for it, which can happen even if the parents don’t have the king coat pattern themselves. Both king and spotted cubs can occur in the same litter. Since king cubs can be born to “normal” spotted parents, the King Cheetah is not a separate species or even subspecies, so the Acinonyx rex classification has been retracted. Any cheetah could be a carrier for this trait, but currently the only way to know is if they parent a cub with the king coat pattern.

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The king coat pattern may help cheetahs blend in better in wooded areas, where they have been known to live when their traditional habitat is not available. The historical record doesn't clearly identify king cheetahs, so it’s possible that this is a relatively recent mutation. The first recorded king sighting was in 1926. King cheetahs have been seen primarily in southeastern Africa, in or near Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia, including part of Kruger National Park). However none have been seen in the wild since the early to mid 1990’s. While it’s not technically possible for the king cheetah to become extinct (because they aren’t a separate species), this is still bad news.

Although there haven’t been any recent wild sightings, there are king cheetahs in captivity. Some of these were originally taken from the wild while others were born in captivity. If the wild population no longer carries the king cheetah genes, it might be possible to reintroduce the trait through breeding programs.

The Asiatic Cheetah

The Asiatic cheetah once extended across Southwest Asia and well in to India. Current estimates account for only 50 to 100 Asiatic cheetahs remaining in Iran, and possibly in to Pakistan and Afghanistan, living under extremely hostile conditions, including winter snow. Not only is the environment inhospitable, but livestock owners kill the cats and wipe out their prey species for fear of predation and competition with their own livestock.

Based on mounted specimens, the cheetahs that lived in India were very similar to the cheetahs of sub-Saharan Africa, with a yellow or tan coat and small black spots. One noted variation is that the tails of African cheetahs usually have a very distinct white tip, whereas the tails of Indian cheetahs were often tipped mostly in black, with possibly a small bit of white on the end.

The Sahara Cheetah

While still an African cheetah, the desert or Sahara cheetah is very different indeed. They have striking variations that are probably environmental adaptations. Their coats appear to be shorter and are much more pale, almost off-white. Their spots often fade from black on the back to a rusty brown further down the body, ending with a few faded spots or blotches on the legs. The tear stripes are often missing and the face has few to no spots. While this appearance is startlingly different than that of a sub-Saharan cheetah, the body shape is basically the same, although tending to be smaller and gaunt. Due to living in the desert, these cheetahs have been known to subsist without direct access to water. They can get by on the fluid from the blood of their prey.

Other Anomalies

Various cheetah anomalies have been reported over the years – black ones, white ones, and one individual known as the woolly cheetah. None of these have been preserved for comparison, so all that remains is a sketchy historical record.

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The woolly cheetah, from southern Africa, was a single cat with a fluffier denser coat, and odd coloring – no spots or facial stripes but rather yellow and grayish blotches all over the body, paling on the stomach area and legs, which is similar to a spotted cheetah. This cat (named Felis lanea at the time) almost certainly did not exist as a subspecies.

Desert cheetahs are nearly white, but there is at least one historical account of a white cheetah that was not a desert cheetah. The sighting and apparent capture of a white cheetah was recorded in India in the early 1600s. The cat was whitish with blue-gray colored spots and with a slight bluish tint to the entire coat. The text of the report makes it clear that this was a very special event - white cheetahs were not previously known in India, nor have any other sightings been recorded. Again, due to the singular nature of this event, it seems safe to say that the cat was an anomaly.

The historical record makes only a slightly stronger case for black (melanistic) cheetahs. At least two of these cats were reported in southern Africa during the early 1900s. The king cheetah was discovered shortly after this, and it seems possible that kings with particularly pervasive stripes might have been mistaken for black cheetahs. This idea is supported by a “black tiger” skin, which has been well documented. It turns out not to be entirely black, but it appears mostly black due to abundantly thick stripes.

Modern cheetahs have sprung more than a few surprises on us, but what about the cheetahs from many thousands of years ago – what were they like? Not only did they look different from the cheetahs of today, but they’ve also turned up in some really surprising places.

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