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Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Daily pattern

  • Dependent upon type of prey, habitat, climate, human activity
    • Hunt mainly between 07:00-10:00 and 16:00-19:00
    • Rest in the middle of the day 09:30-17:00
    • Serengeti cheetahs routinely go four days between drinks
    • Kalahari cheetahs, which regularly consume melons, can go up to 10 days without water

Social Groups

General

  • More social than most felids (except lions)
    • Females live alone with offspring, though adult may share overlapping territories
      • Cubs stay with mother until almost full-grown (about 1.25 years)
    • Male litter-mates may form coalition groups
      • Solitary males have difficulty maintaining territories
      • Coalitions may include unrelated males
      • Social behaviors within a coalition
        • Groom one another, sometimes
          • More frequently occurs between related males
          • Grooming reciprocated 60.3% of the time
          • Purring occasionally heard during grooming
    • Non-territorial males live nomadic lives

Hunt in small groups or alone

  • Many groups kill daily
    • Solitary animals kill less frequently

Territory

Home ranges

  • Females
    • c. 833 km2 (322 mi2), in the Serengeti
      • 500% larger than the territory of males
    • Ranges may overlap one another
  • Males
    • c. 37 km2 (14 mi2), in the Serengeti
      • Not all males hold a territory
        • Non-territorial males roam over large areas, 777 km2 (300 mi2)
          • Move across territories held by other males
      • Those with a territory typically move away from their mother's home range by c. 3 years of age
  • Cheetahs in some locations have even larger average home ranges (Marker et al. 2018)
    • 1713 km2 (661.4 mi2) in Namibia
    • Algeria
    • Iran

Hunting Behaviors

Hunt by sight

  • May watch a herd from vantage point
    • Termite mounds, trees, or other high points used to scan for prey
  • Silently stalk prey
    • Use cover to obscure movements
      • Creep as close as possible, in a semi-crouched position
        • Head lowered
        • Trot, freeze, and drop to the ground to avoid discovery
    • Stalk to within 50 m (164 ft) before charging
  • Prey selection
    • Choose isolated individuals or fawns, flushed out from hiding places
    • Hunting behavior intensified when prey runs
      • Animals that do not run are sometimes left alone

Chase and take down strategies

  • Success rate
    • c. 1/2 of chases are successful
      • Nearly 100% success when hunting fawns
  • Chase mammals weighing less than 40 kg (88 lbs)
  • Speed and stamina
    • Average speed during chase
      • 64 kph (40 mph)
    • Top speed
      • 112 kph (70 mph)
      • Flexible spine allows for long strides
    • Lack stamina
      • Must overtake prey within 200-300m
      • Chases last c. 20 seconds
        • Rarely more than one minute
  • Take down of prey
    • Do not use strong body impact to knock down prey, as is typical of other large felids
      • Trip prey by hooking animal’s leg
      • Use specialized dewclaw to latch onto the animal’s flank or back, pulling prey down
    • Short, blunt, partly retractile claws not suitable for raking or killing prey but provide good traction for quick turns

Killing prey

  • Bite the neck or muzzle to suffocate prey
    • Canines too short to do more than puncture skin of prey
    • Small/young prey may be suffocated by having muzzle completely within cheetah’s mouth
    • Large nasal apertures enable cheetah to breath easily

Social Interactions

Aggression

  • Dominance/Threat display
    • Approaches stiff-legged with head below shoulders
      • Presents body laterally
      • Adopts aggressive facial expression
      • May charge
    • "Bluff threat"
      • Used to approach other cheetahs and sometimes humans
      • Teeth shown in wide-mouth snarl, body hunched, head lowered, eyes staring upward
      • Abrupt small leaps and/or sudden charges, combined with a hard downward thump on the ground with both forepaws
      • Bluffs rarely turn into attacks
      • May defend prey with this technique

Submission displays

  • Close
    • Fall on back and present white underparts while moaning
  • Distant
    • Sit on haunches, turns ears down, and looks away with mouth closed, hiding the black lips

Play

  • Mother plays with cubs
  • Most intensive play between siblings
    • Batting with forepaws, leaping, spinning in mid-air, tugging contests
    • Each attempts to dislodge the other from its vantage point
    • At c. 15 months, sexual elements such as mock mountings occur

Communication

Vocalization

Cheetah audio,  provided by Volodins Bioacoustic Group (2010).

  • Wide variety of calls
    • Cubs freeze/move according to mother’s vocal cues
  • "Yelp" (Caro 1994 calls this "yipping")
    • A contact call usually from mother seeking her cubs, juveniles in a sibling group, or males in a coalition.
    • Can be heard from a distance of 2 km
  • "Whirring"
    • Equivalent to a warning growl
    • Heard by juveniles at a kill as they compete for food
    • Can turn into high-pitched rasp or squeal
  • "Chirping"
    • Greeting between cheetahs who know each other, around female in estrus, or at scenting post
    • Can be accompanied by purring
  • "Purring"
    • During play and friendly meetings
    • May be accompanied by cheek rubbing, mutual sniffing and face licking
  • "Stutter bark" (Caro 1994 calls this "churring")
    • Rapid, repetitive, low pitched sound
    • Usually made by males when estrus female detected, occasionally by female when approached by males
  • "Yowling"
    • Drawn-out bleat-like moan

Olfactory signals

  • Scent marking in cheetahs predominantly male activity
    • Females mark around the time of estrus
  • Marking techniques
    • Territories and preferred routes are marked with urine, feces and occasionally claw marks.
    • Males use urine to mark prominent structures (mounds, boulders, trees)
    • Feces may also be deposited on prominent landmarks

Locomotion

Walk and run quadrupedaly

  • Running speed
    • Varying estimates
      • Frequently given as 68 mi/h or 110 km/h
        • Published report of a timed test (J. Zoology 241(3) 493-494 1997): 64 mph (102 kph).
      • Antelopes: speed reaches 80-97 kph (50-60 mph)
        • They can run much further than cheetahs
    • Hunting sprints last for 100-300 m
      • Captive cheetah race in Cape Town, South Africa, won by 3 year old male (100 meters in 6.3 secs)

Interspecies Interactions

Competitors

  • Prey stolen by other predators
    • Lion and hyena commonly steal food
    • Baboons, leopards, jackals and vultures are also known to be kleptoparasites

Predators

  • Cub predators
    • Lions, hyenas
      • Kill up to 70% of cheetah cubs before they are independent of mother (Laurenson et al 1995)
  • Lions also kill adult cheetahs
    • Though cheetah typically avoid confrontations with lions (and hyenas)
      • Avoidance is a learned response in cheetahs
      • Predator naivete is problem in reintroduction programs

Running

a cheetah running

 

a cheetah running

Cheetahs can reach up to speeds of more than 60 mph.

Image credits: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Beekman et al (1997)
Brahmachary et al (1999)
Caro (1994)
Durant (2000a)
Estes (1990) 
Frame (1981)
Kingdon (1977)
Laurenson et al (1995)
Meltzer (1987)
Poddar-Sarkar (1997)

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