A spotted, slender, sleek, graceful, swift predator...an animal that hunts for its food, on the run. This particular cat is a diurnal hunter, which means that it hunts primarily during the day. Why? Because it uses its incredible running ability to catch a daily meal, and it needs to be able to see what it is running after. It's all about adaptations. That means there are special characteristics about each animal that help it live. One of the cheetah's adaptations, its claws, help make it the fastest running animal. Its claws help it catch its prey, which runs nearly as quickly to escape this running machine.
There are certain natural history facts that seem to be common knowledge. The elephant is the largest land animal, and most everyone seems to know that the fastest running animal on the planet is the cheetah. Cheetahs are built for speed. They can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 3.4 seconds and can reach 65 mph when chasing their favorite antelope prey.
Adaptions of the Cheetah
A cheetah chase is not all that eager to be dinner, so when it is in a race with the worlds fastest land animal it just makes sense NOT to run in a straight line. Football players know this; they change direction often so they aren't tackled easily. But, the cheetah is ready for this tactic. Claws that stick out like a dog's give the cheetah traction in high speed turns. Even the cheetah's tail helps. Other cats have round, fluffy tails - like your house cat - but not the cheetah. Its tail has a flat surface, like the rudder of a boat, and it helps balance its body as the cheetah runs.
So the cheetah has speed licked. But there is another problem - stopping. When the antelope falls to the ground, tackled by the cheetah, the cat is still going 60 mph. The antelope isn't going to wait around if the cheetah flies by it. In order to stop immediately, the cheetah has a highly specialized, pointed pad in the back of each front leg. So, while going full speed, the cheetah can slam its two front legs down, hard. The pads tear into the ground bringing the cat to a near instantaneous halt. Then, it grabs its dinner before the antelope can get away. What a game of predator and prey. Both animals are equipped to survive. That is what the balance of life is all about.
Cheetah's, like most animals in a competitive environment, have other adaptations developed overtime to create their niche and ensure their survival.
Cheetah's great speed comes from their long stride and limber but muscular legs.This differentiates them from the other Cat families such as the lions and tigers.Other competitors include hyenas and wild dogs.The agility and high speed of a cheetah also allows them to attack alone, unlike the hyenas, lions and dogs who attack in packs.Their prey also differs in that they mostly are more slender and quicker animals.The gazelle, springbok, impala and antelope are common prey for the cheetah.
This means that they are also easier to chew and so only need smaller teeth but in turn cheetahs have a bigger nasal cavities that allow it to suck greater air needed as they sprint for their prey.Cheetahs have a high success rate when chasing prey but they do lose a significant amount of their catch to other larger animals such as the lion.It is not common for them to defend their kill.
Cheetahs other adaption is their color.Their variegated dark spots on a light background help camouflage them to some degree.
Have you noticed that footballers and other sportsman will have dark stripes under their eyes to prevent glare from either the Sun or bright lights? Well cheetahs have this too! Those black lines down their face are called "tear marks" and they are also to prevent glare from the hot overhead Sun.
In order to understand how cheetahs coexist and compete with other species in their environment, it’s important to know a few things about their behavior. Given the rapid decline in their numbers over the last two decades, it might be surprising to some that the cheetah is the most reproductive of all cats. Male cheetahs are not involved with caring for their young. In fact, the only time a female cheetah has interaction with a male is for the purposes of mating only. After mating, the gestation period and caring for the cubs are the sole responsibility of the female.
A female is normally only pregnant for approximately three months before giving birth and litters are typically three to five cubs. They can sometimes be larger in number but the biggest cheetah litter that has been documented was eight cubs. While the short gestation period and relatively large litters seem like they would provide a fair amount of support to growing the cheetah population, other factors have significant negative consequences that make things difficult for cubs to survive.
Because the female cheetah handles the raising of the cubs alone, it means she must leave the cubs alone quite often while she hunts for food. This leaves young cubs virtually defenseless against other predators that come along such as lions, hyenas and even large predatory birds. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, only 10% of all the cheetahs born make it past three months of age. Fifty percent of cubs are killed by other large predators and forty percent die from a wide range of diseases due to a weak immune system.
If food and resources are too difficult to find, a female cheetah will many times leave her cubs and abandon them so she can survive. If that does not happen, then cubs are typically weaned by the time they are six to eight weeks old and they are ready to leave the mother once they are fifteen months to two years old.
With the high mortality of cubs and the passive-aggressive nature of cheetahs, it makes it difficult for them to repopulate and directly compete with larger predators.
While female cheetahs are mostly solitary creatures, males are quite different. Males will sometimes join together so they can defend their living space and food resources. Most of the time these partnerships are formed by brothers but they can include unrelated cheetah males as well. Individual males are not overly territorial but groups that have formed partnerships can be. In fact, because there is a fair amount of fighting over living space and food resources among unrelated cheetah partnerships the females now outnumber the males by almost two to one.
When it comes to fighting or defending land and food against lions, hyenas and other large predators, cheetahs often use avoidance as their main tactic. Most of the time, if a cheetah can avoid a confrontation with another large predator then it will. Cheetahs have many advantages in the stealth and speed category but they are not built for fighting like some other predators are.
Cheetahs only need water once every four to five days but the require six to eight pounds of food daily. This makes the hunting of prey and competing for food once they capture their prey the main competitive issue. It is very common for larger predators to steal a cheetah’s captured prey once it has been killed. While they do their best to move their captured prey to a safe area that is concealed from other predators, if they are discovered and confronted by a lion or hyena, a cheetah will often abandon its food and avoid the confrontation.
Competing to Survive
With the exceptional skills and the resourceful adaptations that the cheetah has, you would think that they would be well equipped to compete, survive and flourish. But alas, the cheetah faces many challenges. Some of those challenges are directly connected to interspecific competition with lions, leopards and other large predators that inhabit the same territory as the cheetah. However, that has always been the case and the cheetah has been able to thrive and make it's own niche. No, the evidence and studies suggest the dwindling numbers of the cheetah is the direct result of the ever diminishing native habitat and ecosystem.
As humans build more fences, buildings and other structures the cheetah has smaller spaces to capture their prey. They often need to roam greater distances in order to source and secure the food they need to survive. In an environment that is constantly at very high temperatures and filled with a range of difficult terrain to navigate, the challenge of traveling and locating potential prey has become increasingly difficult for the cheetah. read more about their habitat here .
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