As a kid, the cheetah was my favorite animal because of how fast it was. Since I was pretty fast myself, I admired the cheetah for being the fastest land mammal in the world. I started to read more about the cheetah and learned that not only can it reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, but that it has many unique features that distinguish it from other big cats. In fact, although big cats might appear similar, they each have special attributes that allow them to thrive in their environment and remain high on the food chain.
Cheetahs are smaller than other big cats, but are built for speed. They have slim bodies and long, muscular legs that contribute to their speed in the wild. Their long tails help them stay balanced, and the special padding on the bottom of their paws to gives them better traction on the ground. One of the biggest distinguishing characteristics are the black “tear stripes” that run from the inside corner of their eyes, down the side of their mouths. This “tear stripe” helps keep sunlight out of their eyes and allowing them to see long distances that aids them while hunting for prey. Because of their speed, cheetahs love to hunt during the day. Like the other big cats they are carnivores, and love to prey on gazelles, wildebeest calves and smaller hoofed animals. Another unique characteristic cheetahs have from other big cats is that they can’t roar. They purr.
Of all the big cats, cheetahs are also the most delicate and have a hard time adapting to new environments. Cheetahs have never existed in large numbers. In the early 1900’s there were over 100,000 cheetahs that roamed their habitats throughout the world. They used to live all throughout Africa, parts of the Middle East, India, and the plains of southern Asia. Today only an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 exist in sub-Saharan Africa. Their extinction in many areas is largely due to habitat destruction, and a loss of species to prey upon. Cheetahs also have a high cub mortality rate and in some areas 50 to 75 percent of their young die before 3 months.
Another “big cat” is the leopard. This big cat is the most widespread of all the big cats, meaning it can be found in more areas around the world. Like the cheetah, it has a spotted fur pattern, but a leopard’s pattern is more complex. Although they can sometimes be confused with one another, they are actually very distinguishable. A cheetah’s spots are oval and solid black, while a leopard has a central brown spot with black spots around it, called rosettes. This pattern helps the leopard stay camouflaged and the spots simulate the different shifting of shadows while in the wild. These patterns are also unique to each leopard and like fingerprints: no two patterns are the same.
Leopards are solitary animals, meaning they live alone. They are also nocturnal, so unlike cheetahs that hunt during the day, leopards are active at night. Leopards have very strong legs and can leap over twenty feet away and 10 feet high. Because of their strength and jumping ability, when they catch prey, they take it with them into the trees to keep it away from other opportunistic animals looking to steal their food.
Lions are the most popular big cats. As kings of their domain, sitting on top of their food chain, they let their ferocity be known with the ability to roar loud enough to be heard 5 miles away. Lions range in size from 5 to 8 feet in length, and weigh 300 to 500 pounds. They are much larger than leopards that are 4 to 6 feet long, weighing 100 – 200 pounds, and cheetahs, that are 3 1/2 to 5 feet in length, weighing 100 – 150 pounds. Although lions are considered to be kings of the jungle, tigers are actually much larger and can weigh up to 850 pounds, reaching an amazing 11 feet in length, which has led some to question who the actual king would be if they ever crossed paths, but there aren’t many opportunities for lions and tigers to cross paths since lions are mainly in Africa and tigers live in Asia.
Probably the most well known characteristic of a lion is its mane. The mane is only found on male lions, and is said to help protect them while fighting. But did you know that the female lions actually do most of the hunting? Male lions hunt on occasion and will help out when hunting a big animal like a buffalo, but for the most part, it is the females that do a large part of the hunting for the group. Lions are the only social felines of the big cats and live and hunt together in groups of about 15 lions, called prides.
Big cats are amazing and beautiful creatures. It is unfortunate that their populations have decreased over the years, and can only really be seen in places like Africa or Asia. Of course you can always go to a zoo, but that’s not the same. If you ever get a chance to visit one of those places I suggest you take a tour and see then in their natural habitat.