The cheater might not be the biggest of the big cats nor the most ferocious. But it is without a doubt the fastest. Not only is it capable of an astounding top speed of more than 60 miles an hour, but it can get up to speed incredibly quickly. And with an acceleration that’s comparable to that of a high-powered sports car. They’re able to go from zero to 60 miles an hour in just three seconds. It’s incredible acceleration that gives them the edge.
The average cheetah weighs 45 kilos, and their a long, lithe frame with a flattened ribcage head. And their skinny legs are streamlined for zipping through the long grass. Inside their bodies, their heart and lungs are oversized. They have a shortened muzzle and long gated face, which allows for better binocular vision. Also, They have a specialized black line that goes from the eyes to the mouth. It acts as a sun shield when they’re running into the Sun.
Is Cheetah the fastest animal?
Cheetah can reach speeds greater than 100 kilometers per hour in just three seconds! Some have even hit up to 75 miles per hour! And that’s because every part of the cheetah works together to produce this burst of speed. It depends on a combination of focus, power, flexibility, traction, and the ability to steer their bodies like boats.
Now, unlike other big cats, whose bodies evolved for power, cheetahs evolved for speed. Their bodies are aerodynamically built with small heads, light bones, and slender bodies. A cheetah has a short muzzle, small canines, and other features to help reduce the overall weight of its head. All of this results in a skull that weighs around 500 grams!
Speed: The average cheetah is 63.7 mph (102.5 km/h). The highest speed is 75 miles per hour!
So how do they do it? What makes them the fastest animal on land. A lot of it is down to the sheer force of their muscles. Short bursts of speed are usually measured in power generated per kilogram of body weight. The fastest man Usain Bolt generates around 25 watts of power per kilo, while a greyhound clock is about 60 watts per kilo. But the Cheetah’s raw power leaves these in the dust, doubling that of the Greyhound reaching 120 watts per kilo of their body weight. And that power is put to good use.
There are many key elements/facts for their fastest speed. They are explained below.
Flexible spine: One of the most important ones is the spine. The thing that sets them apart from other runners is that incredible curve in their spine. So the cheetah’s spine is proportionately the longest and the most flexible of any large cat species. It enables the cheetah to maximize the stride length and keep by bunching and coiling a spine alone. It’s able to expand this incredible stride rate.
- A bendy spine lets the cheetah’s vertical shoulder blades and hips swivel, allowing its front and back legs to overlap. It creates a spring motion, propelling its back legs forward with each step. And for most of these strides, cheetahs are airborne, which is incredible!
The cheetah spine is more flexible because the joints between their vertebrae are only loosely articulated, allowing them to move further. It means that the spy can be flexed up first and then down to increase the length and power. When sprinting, a cheetah uses a galloping gait similar to a horse or a greyhound top speed. But the curve in their spine can hit the ground ahead of where the front legs hit, effectively gaining extra distance and loading the body like a spring ready to explode forwards. The power in the muscles and the super flexible spine that allow a cheetah to accelerate. Also, it helps to change direction pretty quickly.
Lightweight skull: The Cheetah’s head has a whole suite of adaptations. Cheetah’s skull is much shorter and much lighter. So the reason for that is to help expand the nasal cavity and to reduce the weight. It enables the fastest speed for a cheetah to have a very lightweight head. Having expanded nasal cavities also helps while they are suffocating the prey to be able to recover.
Strong leg: There’s another interesting thing that has only recently been described cheetah legs, and that’s the ratio of different types of muscle fibers. They’ve got long legs that help by acting as levers turning each powerful muscle contraction into a massive extension. The muscles in the hind leg are high. The fast-twitch fibers dominate the high leg. And a particular type of them that enables very explosive power.
- Their muscles have a higher amount of a certain fiber called fast-twitch glycolytic fibers. These produce quick and powerful muscle contractions to generate that burst of energy to run.
Respiratory tracts: They have enlarged respiratory tracts to get as much oxygen in and around the body as fast as possible. To supply their powerful muscles while running, a cheetah will take up to 150 breaths a minute. And still, it can take them up to 30 minutes to recover from a chase.
Turning capability: A 1.5-meter long cheetah, a third of which is tail, can cover over 7 meters in a single stride. A chase rarely stays in a straight line, though, and that’s where that extraordinarily long tail comes in. The reaction forces on the animal’s body when turning risk knocking them out of the race. And the faster you go, the harder it is to turn. Imagine a motorbike trying to turn a sharp corner at 60 miles an hour.
It would lose traction and skid to the outside. At this speed, a bike can about manage a 45-degree turn. A cheetah can pivot 50 degrees on a dime. Their long tail might seem to fail and controllably when the animal dodges from side to side, tracing an intricate path to counterbalance the centrifugal forces. That could ruin their chase and their day.
A cheetah swings its tail during a chase, so it acts like a rudder and a counterweight. It helps to stabilize the cat as it zig-zags towards its prey. One thing to keep in mind, cheetahs are built for short bursts of energy. So at top speed, a typical chase lasts only about 30 seconds. That’s because the chase puts tremendous stress on every part of the cheetah’s body, forcing it to rest for up to 30 minutes for its respiratory and heart rates to return to resting levels.
Open claws: Once back on the ground, the cheetah relies on its footpads, tough and have ridges. These act just like tire treads providing the necessary traction during a chase. Now, unlike other big cats or even domestic ones, whose claws retract fully, cheetahs have semi-retractable claws, which look more like a dog’s. Cheetah claws aren’t covered by a sheath, which is a protective skin fold. The absence of this skin means that these claws act like cleats, helping the cheetah grip the ground and accelerate when needed.
So with claws, tail, spine, skeleton, gait, heart, lungs perfectly tuned to make a cheetah the ultimate lean speed machine. There’s little wonder that it’s among the most successful hunters in all of Africa. Despite being the fastest, cheetahs are also Africa’s most threatened big cat.
Over a century ago, roughly 100,000 cheetahs were roaming from Africa to the Middle East to India. But now, only about 7,100 remain in the wild. Habitat loss, poaching, and human-wildlife conflict are some of the biggest drivers behind this population loss. And that’s where conservation is so crucial to helping save this incredible animal from extinction.
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Marker, L.; Grisham, J. & Brewer. “A brief history of cheetah conservation.”
Cheetahs: Biology and Conservation. London: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-804088-1.
Skinner, J. D. & Chimimba. “Subfamily Acinonychinae Pocock 1917”. The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion (3rd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.