Meet the cheetah

Cheetah. Photo by William Warby. Retrieved from Flickr on 02-01-2023.

I’m running a race this weekend in North Carolina! It’s a short race (just 5 miles). But this race does have you eat a dozen doughnuts halfway through…

Don’t worry, I signed up as a ‘casual’ runner, so I don’t have to eat all the doughnuts; I’ll probably eat just one!

(Really hope I don’t regret this…but I probably will!)

I’m getting ready for this race by taking inspiration from the fastest animal on Earth.

What’s the fastest animal on Earth? It depends on your definition of ‘on Earth.’

Black marlins, for instance, are fish with an estimated top speed of 80 miles per hour. Sailfish are another quick ocean swimmer, coming in at 67 miles per hour.

Common horseflies can reach 90 miles an hour under the right circumstances.

The peregrine falcon is considered the fastest bird and fastest animal – it can dive at more than 185 miles per hour.

The fastest long-distance land animal is the pronghorn, which can keep a speed of 35 miles per hour for several miles.

But the fastest animal I’m talking about today (and the one you probably know) is the fastest land animal (over short distances): the cheetah.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are large cats native to Africa and central Iran. They are the only animals in their genus, and their closest living relatives are the wild cats native to the Americas: cougars and jaguarundis.

Built for speed

Cheetahs are built for speed – they have multiple adaptations for gaining speed quickly and sprinting short distances.

Cheetahs have larger nostrils than other big cats. This, combined with large lungs, let cheetahs get air into their body quickly while running.

Their feet have special paw pads that give them traction while running. Cheetahs get even more traction with their semi-retractable claws. Unlike other cats, which can retract their claws, cheetah feet are more like dog feet – they always have some of their claw visible. These claw tips act like cleats.

Long and lanky. Photo by flowcomm. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 02-01-2023.

A cheetah’s spine is flexible, and its hips can easily swivel. Their collarbones are small, and their shoulder blades are vertical and unattached to the collarbone. These bone adaptations mean that cheetahs can stretch and lengthen their stride – an average cheetah has a stride length of 21 feet! They can also move their limbs quickly. A cheetah can make four strides per second; twice per stride, all of its limbs are off the ground!

How does a cheetah maintain their balance when they’re in the air? They have a muscular tails! In addition to helping them balance, this tail acts like a rudder by counteracting a cheetah’s body weight when changing direction. They can even turn in midair!

Just how fast can cheetahs go? They can reach speeds of 64 miles per hour in just three seconds! This is a faster acceleration than the acceleration of a racecar. And that top speed is more than twice that of the current fastest man alive, Usain Bolt. He can only reach a speed of around 27 miles per hour.

Day hunter

This fast sprinting comes at a cost, though – cheetahs have to spend time catching their breath after a sprint. It takes them about 20 to 30 minutes for their breathing to go back to normal. Incidentally, this is about the same amount of time their prey takes to die after being caught.

Cheetahs kill through suffocation. Remember, they have big nasal passages, so they can get lots of air while sprinting. These large nasal passages leave little room for big teeth. As a result, cheetahs have relatively small teeth and a less powerful jaw than other big cats. So, instead of breaking their prey’s neck, they suffocate them.

Teeth still look pretty big to me… Photo by Tambako The Jaguar. Retrieved from Flickr on 02-01-2023.

This weak jaw could also explain why cheetahs hunt during the day – they don’t have the power to fight off other predators from taking their food. So, they try to avoid the more nocturnal lions and spotted hyenas entirely and stick to hunting during daytime hours.

Still, this avoidance strategy isn’t perfect. Cheetahs typically only have a single chance to eat their meal before it’s stolen, and around 10% of their kills are taken by lions and spotted hyenas.

Hunting during the day may also explain the black stripe on a cheetah’s face. Just as football players may paint black stripes under their eyes to reduce glare from the sun, a cheetah’s face stripes may help reduce the sun’s glare during hunting.

No roar

Unlike other big cats (lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars), cheetahs can’t roar.

Big cats have a ligament in their voice box. This ligament can stretch, producing a larger space for sounds to be made and a wider range of pitches. As the ligament extends, the sound gets lower. Instead of this ligament, cheetahs (and other small cats, like domestic cats and pumas) have an epihyal bone in their voice box. Since the epihyal bone can’t stretch like a ligament, the range of noises a cheetah can make is much smaller.

So cheetahs can’t roar. But they can PURR!!! Cheetahs also chirp and meow like domestic cats.


A cheetah’s spots are perhaps their most distinctive feature, while also being the feature that gets them confused with leopards and jaguars (other big, spotted cats). Still, it’s pretty easy to recognize a cheetah if you know what to look for. Cheetahs have those black lines on their face, while leopards and jaguars have no or very minimal facial markings. Cheetahs also have round or oval spots, while leopard and jaguar spots are ‘rosettes.’

From left to right: cheetah, leopard, jaguar. Photo by PJeganathan. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 02/01/2023.

Why the spots? These spots likely serve as camouflage for hunting, as the spots may offset shadows in the gray-hued grasses where they live. Spots are also useful for cheetah cubs to hide safely in the grass from predators.

Cheetah spots are helpful for humans, too. Their spots and the rings on their tail are unique for each individual cheetah, much like our human fingerprints. This lets researchers identify individuals they are studying in the field.

Although I don’t think cheetahs typically eat a dozen doughnuts before a sprint, I still hope I’ll be able to get some speed from them!



World Wildlife Fund


San Diego Zoo


Cheetah Conservation Fund

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