Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
The fastest land mammal in the world, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) has many adaptations that allow it to sprint across the plains. Its rangy frame supports long limbs and a deep chest cavity, and this species has a small waist and an extremely flexible spine. Unlike other cats, the cheetah has claws that are not fully retractable, enabling it to grip the ground when in a hunting sprint. The large nostrils allow greater amounts of air to enter the lungs, and the tail is particularly long to provide extra balance when cornering.
The common name of this species is derived from the Hindi word chita meaning ‘spotted’ or ‘sprinkled’. The coat of the cheetah is a yellowish, tan or tawny colour with black spots on the upperparts, and a paler, whitish colour on the underparts. The last third of the tail has a series of black rings. The small head has high-set eyes and small, flattened ears, and is instantly recognizable by the black ‘tear lines’ running from the corners of the eyes to the muzzle. Cheetah cubs have a mane of tufty pale hair which sticks upright on the back of their neck.
Genetic colour morphs with large, blotchy markings that can merge into stripes occasionally appear in the population. These morphs are known as ‘king’ cheetahs, and were once considered to be a distinct species.