The scientific name of the cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus. The animal was first described by Schreber in 1775. Cheetahs belong to the order of Carnivora and the family Felidae. Unlike the other members of the Felidae which have retractable claws those of the cheetah are non retractable.
The name cheetah comes from a Hindu word chita. The Afrikaans name jagluiperd – literally meaning “hunting or chasing leopard” – refers to the spotted similarity with leopard and the cheetah’s ability to chase down prey.
As illustrated by the above images the cheetah is sleek, streamlined, and built for speed. Over short distances of 100 – 300m it is said to be the fastest of all land mammals capable of attaining 70km per hour (Bigalke 1964). Earlier reports by Howell (1944) of 104 - 112 km per hour appear to be exaggerated. Male’s average mass is about 54,0 kg (118 lbs). Females are lighter and weigh between 36,0 – 48,0 kg (79 – 105 lbs). Shoulder height averages about 75 cm (29 – 30 inches). The general colour is tawny to pale buff, lighter – almost white – on the belly, throat and chin. The tail is long, spotted towards the base with rings further back towards the bushy white tip. It aids in balance during radical hunting manoeuvres. The cheetah has long, slender legs and a head that appears disproportionately small in size when compared to the body. A hunter of open plains they are partial to standing on rocks, logs or any object that will elevate them to improve their range of visibility.
Ears are short and rounded, with a black patch on the back and a tawny tip. Cheetah have large, forward facing eyes allowing deep fields of visual perception that are critical to hunting success. The enlarged nasal passages enable them to dissipate heat effectively, which can be rapidly built up during explosive chases.
There is a characteristic black “tear” mark running from the corner of the eye to the mouth. The canines are short, sharp and rounded and the carnisial or “cutting” teeth are small and poorly developed.
The coat of the cheetah is quite long and covered entirely with small, solid, round, black spots (above left). This differs from that of the leopard’s spots that are made up of black rosettes surrounding a tawny coloured centre (above right).