Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common name

  • Etymology
    • "Cheetah" derived from Hindu word "chita," ("spotted one")

Scientific Name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Acinonyx may be derived from the Greek words akaina meaning "a thorn" and onyx meaning "a claw"
    • Specific epithet jubatus is Latin
      • Refers to long, dorsal hair (mantle) on juveniles and some adults
  • Taxonomic distinction
    • Cheetahs compose their own subfamily Acinonychinae, according to some (McKenna and Bell 1997)
      • Others do not recognize this subfamily and propose alternate groupings (Collier and O'Brien 1985)
        • Molecular analysis suggests three lines of cats
          • Ocelot (South American) lineage
            • Ocelot, Geoffrey’s cat, margay, tiger cat, kodkod, and pampas cat
          • Domestic cat lineage
            • Pallas cat, African wildcat, sand cat, jungle cat, European wildcat, black-footed cat, and domestic cat
          • Pantherine lineage
            • Cheetah, lion, tiger, lynx, puma, serval, marbled cat, and jaguarondi
    • Subspecies
      • Last subspecies review by the IUCN Cat Specialist Group's Cat Classification Task Force recognized four possible subspecies (Kitchener et al. 2017; Schmidt-Küntzel et al. 2018)
        • A. j. raineyi and A. j. jubatus synonymized into a single subspecies
        • Four other subspecies may be further merged in the future
      • Some taxonomists consider all subspecies to be synonyms (Wilson and Reeder 1992)
      • 5 subspecies recognized by one important DNA study (Charruau et al. 2011)
        • A. j. jubatus - southern Africa
        • A. j. raineyi - eastern Africa
        • A. j. hecki - western Africa
        • A. j. soemmeringi - northeastern Africa
        • A. j. venaticus - northern Africa to central India


Evolutionary History

Evolutionary history and diversity of cats

  • Divergence from other carnivores
    • c. 55 million years ago (mya) - 1st felid diverged from carnivorous, common ancestor with canids (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
  • Emergence of modern felid groups
    • 10-11 mya (late Miocene) in Asia - common ancestor of all modern felid groups (O'Brien and Johnson 2005; O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
  • Extant felid diversity
    • 38 modern/extant, species; nearly all endangered or threatened (Davis et al. 2010)
    • Extant species represent a small subset of cat variation (Werdelin 2013)

Diversification of modern cat lineages

  • Early divergence events
    • First divergence led to modern panthera lineage, including roaring cats and two species of clouded leopard (O'Brien and Johnson 2007)
      • Great cats (Panthera) emerged 2-5 mya, the late Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010; Werdelin and Dehghani 2011)
      • Rapid radiation occurred within the Pliocene (Davis et al. 2010)
      • Recent genetic work divides modern cats into eight lineages
        • Cheetah placed with jaguarundi and puma in the puma lineage (O'Brien and Johnson 2005, Johnson et al 2006)
    • Cheetahs, pumas (Puma concolor), and jaguarundis (Puma yaguaroundi) share a common ancestor
      • Dates to c. 5 million years ago in North America (Johnson et al. 2006, Van Valkenburgh et al. 1990)
  • Cheetah diversification
    • c. 32,000-67,000 year ago Asiatic and African populations diverge from one another (Charruau et al. 2011)
    • Proposed genetic "bottleneck"
      • Previous suggestions of a large decline in numbers c. 10,000 years ago (at the end of the Ice Age; the late Pleistocene) (Menotti-Raymond & O'Brien 1993)
      • Decline may be overstated or incorrect
        • A More recent study suggest, when adding population data not previously considered, genetic variation is higher than previously assumed (Charruau et al. 2011)

Cultural History

Popular cultural references

Documentary appearances

  •  The Life of Mammals- 2002, BBC
    • Narrated by David Attenborough, Cheetahs are documented in episode 5 titled Meat Eaters.
  • Chasing Big Cats - 2004, BBC
    • This Nature documentary from season 23 reveals the Cheetah of Africa in never-before-seen footage.
  • Mutuah of Omaha's Wild Kingdom: Wild Cats - 2005, Animal Planet
    • Disc 3-episode 1 is titled Cheetah Country. Baby cheetahs in Rhodesia are documented.
  • The Cheetah Orphans - 2007, BBC
    • Season 26 from Nature documents Veteran wildlife filmmaker Simon King as he raises two cheetah cubs after the death of their mother.
  • Cheetah: Fatal Instinct - 2012, National Geographic
    • This documentary follows one cheetah family as the mother raises her cubs to be powerful hunters.

Children's Books

  • National Geographic Readers: Cheetahs - 2011, National Geographic
    • Beautiful photographs and mind-boggling facts about the fastest land animal.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Felidae

Subfamily: Felinae — lynx, bobcat, caracal, puma lineage (includes cheetah), fishing cat, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, serval

Genus: Acinonyx

Species: Acinonyx jubatus (Schreber, 1776)

Subspecies: A. j. hecki
Subspecies: A. j. jubatus
Subspecies: A. j. soemmeringii
Subspecies: A. j. venaticus

Source: Kitchener et al. (2017); IUCN Cat Specialist Group may recommend merging additional subspecies in the future.

Describer (Date): Schreber 1776. Die Saugethiere 3: Pl. 105 [1776]: 392, 586 [1777] Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. Described as Felis jubata. Describer of genus: Brookes, 1828. Cat. Anat. Zool. Mus. J. Brookes, London, p. 16, 33

Early Rendering

a drawing of cheetahs

Image appears in Thomas Kelly's 1830 book, The Wonders of the Animal Kingdom : Exhibiting Delineations of the Most Distinguished Wild Animals in the Various Menageries of This Country.

Image credit: Made available by the © Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Page Citations

Caro (1994)
Charruau et al. (2011)
Collier and O'Brien (1985)
Davis et al. (2010)
Ellerman and Morrison-Scott (1951)
Krausman & Morales (2005)
Kurtén (1968)
Menotti-Raymond & O'Brien (1993)
O'Brien & Johnson (2005, 2007)
Werdelin (2013)
Werdelin and Dehghani (2011)
Wilson and Reeder (2005)

SDZWA Library Links