The cheater might not be the biggest of the big cats nor the most ferocious. But it is, without a doubt, the fastest. It is capable of an astounding top speed of more than 60 miles an hour and can quickly get up to speed, with an acceleration comparable to that of a high-powered sports car. They can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in only three seconds. It’s incredible acceleration that gives them the edge.
The average Cheetah weighs 45 kilos and has a long, lithe frame with a flattened ribcage head. 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, allowing 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?
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is widely regarded as the fastest land animal. Here are a few key facts about the cheetah’s speed:
Acceleration: Cheetahs can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour (0 to 97 kilometers per hour) in seconds. During the initial stage of a sprint, they can reach speeds of around 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour) in just a few strides.
Top Speed: Cheetahs can reach speeds of approximately 70 miles per hour (112 kilometers per hour) for short distances, typically ranging from 20 to 30 seconds or 400 to 500 meters.
Adaptations for Speed: Cheetahs have several physiological adaptations contributing to their incredible speed. They have a lightweight body, long and flexible spine, semi-retractable claws for better traction, and large nasal passages for improved oxygen intake during high-speed chases.
Hunting Technique: Cheetahs use their speed to pursue and capture prey, typically targeting smaller to medium-sized ungulates. They rely on their exceptional acceleration and agility to get close to the prey and then use their powerful bursts of speed to close the distance and make a successful kill quickly.
Cheetahs can reach speeds greater than 100 kilometers per hour in three seconds! Some have even hit up to 75 miles per hour! Every part of the cheetah works together to produce this burst of speed. It depends on focus, power, flexibility, traction, and the ability to steer their bodies like boats.
Like other big cats, cheetahs evolved for speed, whose bodies evolved for power. 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. 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. Each step creates a spring motion, propelling its back legs forward. 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 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’s or a greyhound’s 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 allows 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 reduce weight. It enables the fastest speed to have a very lightweight head. Having expanded nasal cavities also helps while they are suffocating the prey to recover.
Strong leg: Another exciting thing that has only recently been described as cheetah legs: is the ratio of different types of muscle fibers. They’ve 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. A particular type of them that enables very explosive power.
- Their muscles have more 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 possible. A cheetah will take up to 150 breaths a minute to supply its powerful muscles while running. Still, it can take up to 30 minutes to recover from a chase.
Turning capability: A 1.5-meter-long cheetah, a third of which is the 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. When turning risk, the reaction forces the animal’s body, knocking them out of the race. 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 manage about a 45-degree turn. A cheetah can pivot 50 degrees on a dime. Their long tail might fail 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, acting like a rudder and a counterweight. It helps to stabilize the cat as it zig-zags toward its prey. Keep in mind cheetahs are built for short bursts of energy. So at top speed, a typical chase lasts only about 30 seconds. The chase stresses 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 tough footpads with ridges. These act like tire treads providing the necessary traction during a chase. Unlike other big cats or domestic ones whose claws retract fully, cheetahs have semi-retractable claws that look more like dogs. A sheath, a protective skin fold, doesn’t cover cheetah claws. The absence of this skin means that these claws act like cleats, helping the cheetah grip the ground and accelerate when needed.
So claws, tails, spine, skeleton, gait, heart, and lungs are perfectly tuned to make a cheetah the ultimate lean-speed machine. There’s little wonder that it’s among Africa’s most successful hunters. Cheetahs are also Africa’s most threatened big cat despite being the fastest.
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 the biggest drivers behind this population loss. That’s where conservation is crucial to helping save this incredible animal from extinction.
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.