Their main hunting strategy is to trip swift prey such as various antelope species and hares with its dewclaw. Almost every facet of the cheetah's anatomy has evolved to maximise its success in the chase, the result of an evolutionary arms race with its prey. Due to this specialisation, however, the cheetah is poorly equipped to defend itself against other large predators, with speed being its main means of defence. In the wild, the cheetah is a prolific breeder, with up to nine cubs in a litter. The majority of cubs do not survive to adulthood, mainly as a result of depredation from other predators. The rate of cub mortality varies from area to area, from 50% to 75%, and in extreme cases such as the Serengeti ecosystem, up to 90%. Cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders in captivity, though several organizations, such as the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, have succeeded in breeding high numbers of cubs.
The cheetah is listed as vulnerable, facing various threats including loss of habitat and prey; conflict with humans; the illegal pet trade; competition with and predation by other carnivores; and a gene pool with very low variability. It is a charismatic species and many captive cats are "ambassadors" for their species and wildlife conservation in general.
King CheetahThe king cheetah is a variety of cheetah with a rare mutation for cream-colored fur marked with large, blotchy spots and three dark, wide stripes extending from their neck to the tail. In 1926, Major A. Cooper wrote about an animal he had shot near Salisbury (modern-day Harare) in southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe). Describing the animal, he noted its remarkable similarity to the cheetah, but the body of this individual was covered with fur as thick as that of a snow leopard and the spots merged to form stripes. He suggested that it could be a cross between a leopard and a cheetah. After further similar animals were discovered, it was established they were similar to the cheetah in having non-retractable claws - a characteristic feature of the cheetah.
English zoologist R. I. Pocock described it as a new species named Acinonyx rex, which translated to "king cheetah". However, he reversed this decision in 1939 due to lack of evidence; but in 1928, a skin purchased by the English zoologist Walter Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and English hunter-naturalist Abel Chapman considered it to be a color form of the spotted cheetah. 22 such skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live king cheetah was not photographed until 1974 in South Africa's Kruger National Park. Cryptozoologists Paul and Lena Bottriell photographed one during an expedition in 1975. They also obtained stuffed specimens. It appeared larger than a spotted cheetah and its fur had a different texture. There was another wild sighting in 1986 — the first in seven years. By 1987, 38 specimens had been recorded, many from pelts.
In May 1981, two spotted sisters gave birth at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre (South Africa) and each litter contained one king cheetah. The sisters had both mated with a wild male from the Transvaal region (where king cheetahs had been recorded). Further king cheetahs were later born at the Centre. It has been known to exist in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa's Transvaal province. In 2012, the cause of this alternative coat pattern was found to be a mutation in the gene for transmembrane aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep), the same gene responsible for the striped "mackerel" versus blotchy "classic" patterning seen in tabby cats. Hence genetically the king cheetah is simply a variety of the common cheetah and not a separate species. This case is similar to that of the black panthers. The mutation is recessive, which is a reason behind the rareness of the mutation. As a result, if two mating cheetah have the same gene, then a quarter of their offspring can be expected to be king cheetah.
The cheetah differs notably from the other big cats in terms of morphology. The face and the jaw are unusually shortened and the sagittal crest is poorly developed, possibly to reduce weight and enhance speed. In fact, the skull resembles that of the smaller cats. Another point of similarity to the small cats is the long and flexible spine, in contrast with the stiff and short one of other large felids. A 2001 study of felid morphology stated that the relatively earlier truncation of the development of the middle phalanx bone in cheetah in comparison to other felids could be a major reason for the peculiar morphology of the cheetah. In the Puma lineage, the cheetah has similar skull morphology as the puma - both have short, wide skulls - while that of jaguarundi is different.
The cheetah has a total of 30 teeth; the dental formula is 18.104.22.168.1.2.1. The sharp, narrow cheek teeth help in tearing flesh, whereas the small and flat canine teeth bite the throat of the prey to suffocate it. Males have slightly bigger heads with wider incisors and longer mandibles than females. The muscles between the skull and jaw are short, and thus do not allow the cheetah to open its mouth as much as other cats. Digitigrade animals, the cheetah have tough foot pads that make it convenient to run on firm ground. The hindlegs are longer than the forelegs. The relatively longer metacarpals, metatarsals (of lower leg), radius, ulna, tibia and fibula increase the length of each jump. The straightening of the flexible vertebral column also adds to the length.
Cheetah have a high concentration of nerve cells, arranged in a band in the center of the eyes. This arrangement is called a "visual streak", that significantly enhances the sharpness of the vision. The visual streak is most concentrated and efficient in the cheetah among most of the felids. The nasal passages are short and large; the smallness of the canines helps to accommodate the large nostrils. The cheetah is unable to roar due to the presence of a sharp-edged vocal fold with a sharp edge in the larynx.
The paws of the cheetah are narrower than those of other felids. The slightly curved claws lack a protective sheath, and are weakly retractable (semi-retractable). This is a major point of difference between the cheetah and the other big cats, that have fully retractable claws. The limited retraction of claws adds a canine quality to this felid. The aforementioned 2001 study showed that the claws of cheetah have features intermediate between those of felids and the wolf. This peculiar similarity between the cheetah and the wolf was attributed to convergent evolution. Additionally, the claws of cheetah are shorter as well as straighter than those of other cats. Absence of protection makes the claws blunt. However, the large and strongly curved dewclaw has notable sharpness.