From skull to spine, a cheetah’s body is perfectly designed for running. ©Eric Rock

Cheetahs are the fastest runners on the planet: they can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in only three seconds. And thanks to their spines that are proportionally the longest and most flexible in any large cat species—and which work in conjunction with fast-twitch fibers in their legs—cheetahs can cover 25 feet in a single bound.

A few centuries ago, cheetahs ranged from India west to the Red Sea and throughout most of Africa. Today, sadly, cheetahs are the most vulnerable of the world’s big cats. Loss of habitat from human settlement, sport hunting and poaching for the exotic pet trade have decimated cheetah populations. Found in the wild today just in Africa and parts of Iran, cheetahs number only 7,000 to 10,000.

By bunching and coiling its spine, a cheetah can expand to a great stride length. ©From the video “Cheetahs on the Edge—Director’s Cut” by National Geographic

Putting human impacts on cheetahs aside, even nature seems to be stacked against cheetah survival. Cubs face the threats of being killed by hyenas or lions, dying of exposure or being abandoned by mothers that aren’t skilled enough to support them. Mortality among cheetah cubs in certain areas runs as high as 95 percent. Even inside Africa’s game parks, cheetahs have to struggle more than other big cats. Shy and slight of build—also the only big cats that cannot roar—cheetahs are forced into the margins by lions, which are stronger in both body and numbers.

Watch the two videos below, produced by National Geographic and the Cincinnati Zoo. In the first, three-and-a-half-minute film, the science of how a cheetah attains such high speeds is explained.

A cheetah can cover 25 feet in a single bound. ©From the video “Cheetahs on the Edge—Director’s Cut” by National Geographic

In the second, seven-minute video, you’ll be able to watch—in a manner like none before—footage of a cheetah running. Experts from National Geographic and the Cincinnati Zoo collaborated with a Hollywood action-movie crew on a three-day shoot to film five cheetahs running. Using a Phantom camera (“Phantom” is a registered trademark of Vision Research, Inc.) that shot 1,200 frames per second while zooming beside a sprinting cheetah, the team put together a compilation that captured every nuance of a cheetah’s movements as it reached its top speeds. In the last two minutes of this “director’s cut” video, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at how the footage was captured.

Cheetahs are often called “nature’s perfect running machines.” Let’s hope they can outpace their many challenges to survival.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,