Cheetahs survive on speed, but it is only one of many physical and behavioral adaptations they rely upon to survive a complex set of interlinking challenges. Recent research and developments in cheetah conservation shed new light on the cheetah’s race for survival, contributing to new ways we understand and can support cheetahs.

Survival of the Smallest of the Big Cats 

Once widespread across Africa and southwest Asia, the global population of cheetahs now numbers around 7,000 adult individuals. The species is almost extinct in Asia and persists only in three tiny populations in Iran, with an estimated population of substantially fewer than 50 individuals.

Cheetah habitat across Africa and Asia has reduced by 91% of its historic range. Cheetahs share the same shrinking habitat with other big African cats (leopards, lions) and other predators (hyenas), and as the smallest of these, they vie for food with a range of physical and behavioral protective adaptations.

Lions and leopards often scavenge the prey that cheetahs have caught, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism. The threat lions pose to cheetahs goes beyond food theft; they have been known to prey on cheetahs, especially vulnerable cubs. This predation is a significant threat to cheetah populations and their survival.

To navigate this perilous landscape, cheetahs have developed strategies to avoid lions, as well as other competitors like hyenas and leopards. They are smaller and less confrontational than these competitors and avoid unnecessary injuries at all costs because they rely on speed to hunt and survive.

A look at the variety of adaptation strategies cheetahs employ provides a fascinating glimpse into the complex interlocking challenges these species face today.

How Lions and Cheetahs Hunt Shapes Adaptation

First, the way cheetahs hunt and feed: cheetahs are most often solitary hunters and rely on their exceptional speed and agility to capture prey.

Cheetahs use their keen vision to spot potential prey during the day, then employ stealth to get close before launching into a high-speed chase. Once they’ve caught their prey, they use their momentum to knock it off balance, then deliver a fatal bite to the neck. After a successful hunt, cheetahs eat their prey quickly or drag it to a hiding place to avoid attracting other predators.

On the other hand, lions typically hunt in prides and rely on their combined strength and numbers to take down prey. They primarily hunt at night, using the cover of darkness to their advantage. Lions often work together during a hunt, with some members of the pride serving to drive the prey toward others lying in wait. Once the prey is within reach, the lions pounce, using their powerful, heavy bodies to bring down the animal. They then strangle their prey before sharing the meal among the pride.

While cheetahs rely on speed, agility and stealth in their solitary hunts, lions use strength, teamwork and strategic planning in their group hunts. These differences in hunting techniques reflect the adaptations each species has made to survive in the same ecosystem.

Physical Adaptations for Cheetah Survival

At the core of the cheetah’s prowess is its enlarged heart and lungs, like a biological turbocharger that fuels explosive speed. Complementing this is a high oxygen intake facilitated by enlarged nostrils and extensive, air-filled sinuses. This combination of adaptations allows the cheetah to push the boundaries of speed.

The cheetah’s lithe body and small head minimize air resistance, while its rudder-like tail provides balance and steering during high-speed chases. The cheetah’s small collarbones and vertical shoulder blades, unattached to the collarbone, along with hips that swivel on a flexible spine, help lengthen its stride and provide superior acceleration.

But speed is not the cheetah’s only asset. Its coat, adorned with spots, provides camouflage, offsetting its shadow and making it nearly invisible in the tall grasses of the savanna. Beneath its eyes, two dark lines run down like dried tears, and absorb the sun’s glare and enhance focus on its prey. This is especially useful since cheetahs, unlike other large cats, are diurnal, hunting primarily during the day.

In Nat Hab’s Daily Dose of Nature, “Disappearing Spots: Cheetahs’ Race for Survival,” Expedition Leader Lorraine Doyle compares photos of cheetah cubs with those of honey badgers to illustrate the cubs’ mantles, saying:

“The mantle refers to this long white hair on cubs; it’s completely gone by the time they’re about six months of age, and we believe that the reason they have this mantle is a form of mimicry. There’s another creature in the African bushveld called the honey badger, which is a ferocious little creature. As you can see here, they have this incredibly long white back, and when you see a cheetah cub from a distance in the right light, spots actually blur out, and they are a little bit darker than the adults anyway and remarkably, they actually do look quite like honey badger.

If you have a look at the claws on this honey badger, you can see just how ferocious they are; they have incredible teeth—they are absolutely fearless, and nothing in the African bush wants to mess with the honey badger, so we believe that that’s one of the adaptations that has helped with, to some extent, cub survival.”

Conventional wisdom has suggested that many—if not all—of the cheetah’s physical adaptations result from predator avoidance. 

Cheetah Behavioral Adaptation

The same is true of behavioral differences, many of which are closely linked with cheetahs’ physical characteristics:

One of the most notable behavioral adaptations related directly to its physical characteristics is the cheetah’s stealth. When stalking prey, cheetahs will often keep exceptionally low to the ground (enabled by their size and vertical shoulder blades) and move slowly until they are close enough to make a sudden dash for their target. This strategy allows them to get close enough to ensure a successful kill while remaining undetected by their prey.

Cheetahs also have an excellent sense of hearing and vision, which helps them locate potential prey from great distances away. Once they have spotted an animal, they will use their speed and agility to chase it down before making the kill with a quick bite to the neck or throat area.

Another behavioral adaptation of the cheetah is their traveling habits: While female cheetahs live their entire lives alone, with the exception of mating or raising cubs, male cheetahs may hunt with littermates in a coalition. These groups take down larger prey, including wildebeest and kudu.

The primary difference between cheetahs and other big cats, though, is that cheetahs are predominantly active during the day. This diurnal behavior is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation, a survival strategy to avoid larger, more competitive nocturnal carnivores.

In recent decades, though, advances in collar and tracking technologies and machine learning have shed new light on nocturnal cheetah behavior. 

© Joe Charleson

Research Sheds New Light on Cheetah Adaptation

In the vast plains of the Okavango Delta, collared cheetahs have been under the watchful eyes of teams of researchers from the UK and Botswana. Their mission? To unravel the mysteries of the cheetah’s behavior.

Their observations have painted a more complex picture of cheetah behavior and the interlocking nature of the threats these majestic animals face. 

Cheetahs, it seems, are not strictly creatures of the day. Researchers have found they are more active at night than previously thought, and this nocturnal activity appears to be linked to moonlight.

This unexpected behavior raises compelling questions: 

Why would a species adapted for daylight activity choose to be active at night, especially during periods of increased moonlight? And will this make cheetahs better equipped to survive as temperatures increase due to climate change?

To find out, the research team embarked on a study tracking a group of cheetahs in the Okavango Delta. They discovered that the cheetahs’ nocturnal behavior could be explained more by optimal hunting conditions rather than predator avoidance.

As visual hunters, cheetahs rely heavily on sight to locate and capture their prey. The researchers found that the cheetahs’ nocturnal feeding behavior was positively correlated with moonlight intensity, but this correlation was only observed during the dry season.

During moonlit nights, the increased visibility benefitted the cheetahs, allowing them to approach their prey more closely. This could potentially increase the rate of successful hunts and decrease the chase distance, thereby reducing energy expenditure.

Interestingly, the study also found that during moonlit nights, impalas, which are a primary prey for cheetahs, tend to move into open areas. This behavior could further benefit the cheetahs, which are high-speed predators adapted to open habitats.

It turns out cheetahs don’t just change their behavior based on the time of day to avoid predators; they also make other small changes in their behavior to help them stay safe.

Nocturnal Hunting: Climate Adaptation for Cheetahs?

In even more recent research with cheetahs in the Okavango Delta, researchers have discovered an interplay between temperature and the activity patterns of Africa’s apex predators. The study focused on comparing activity overlaps between different pairs of species: lions and leopards, lions and wild dogs, across a range of maximum daily temperatures.

As temperatures rose, researchers found an increase in the temporal overlap between cheetahs, the species that showed the most pronounced temperature-mediated activity shifts, and lions and leopards, the most nocturnal species across all temperatures.

The increase in activity overlap was most pronounced between cheetahs and lions. The overlap increased by an average of 15.92% between extreme temperatures (5th and 95th percentiles) and 8.17% between moderate temperatures (25th and 75th percentiles).

Interestingly, temperature did not significantly affect the activity overlap between cheetahs and wild dogs, nor between other species. This suggests that temperature plays a unique role in shaping the interactions between cheetahs and other large predators, potentially influencing their hunting strategies and survival tactics.

This research provides a new lens through which to view the dynamics of Africa’s predators, shedding light on how environmental factors like temperature can shape the behavior and interactions.

Conducting scientific research and monitoring that improves our understanding of cheetah ecology, behavior, genetics, health, and threats is a vital part of cheetah conservation.

© Eric Rock

Conservation Efforts on International Cheetah Day

International Cheetah Day (December 4) was created by Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund. She designated December 4 as in remembrance of Khayam, a cheetah she raised from a cub at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. Dr. Marker brought Khayam to Namibia to determine if captive-born cheetahs could be taught to hunt. They can! 

In 1990, she launched CCF in Namibia to mitigate the problem of farmer-cheetah conflict. Because of her interactions with Khayam, Dr. Marker dedicated her life to becoming the cheetah’s champion, and she chose December 4 (Khayam’s birthday) to raise awareness and support for cheetah conservation.

Cheetah conservation efforts are making a difference. Despite the challenges they face, cheetahs have some hope for survival thanks to the dedicated efforts of conservationists, researchers, governments, communities, and donors working together to protect them and their habitats. Some of the successful initiatives that are helping cheetahs include:

  • Establishing protected areas and corridors that link cheetah populations and allow them to move freely and safely across landscapes. One of the challenges facing cheetah populations is that groups are increasingly fragmented and less genetically diverse. Of the 30 known cheetah populations, only seven contain more than 100 individuals, and only two more than 1000. Small populations that remain in double and single digits are all extremely vulnerable to extinction when isolated. International cooperation and the establishment of wildlife corridors will increase cheetahs’ chances of survival.
  • Providing incentives and solutions that reduce human-cheetah conflict and encourage coexistence. One of the most successful interventions is CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dogs program. Livestock Guardian Dogs are at the core of CCF’s efforts to address the human-wildlife conflict. Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs, raised and bred at CCF Namibia headquarters, are placed with Namibian farmers. The dogs protect livestock from cheetah attacks by barking loudly whenever they see a cheetah or predator, scaring the big cats away. Farmers no longer need to kill cheetahs to protect their livestock and their livelihood. Most farmers report an 80% to 100% reduction in livestock kills by cheetahs and other predators. Since 1994, CCF has placed hundreds of livestock guarding dogs.
  • Rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing orphaned and injured cheetahs back into the wild or providing them with lifelong care in sanctuaries. CCF has also rescued and rehabilitated over 1,000 orphaned or injured cheetahs and released many of them back into the wild.
  • South African success story: Namibia and Botswana have the largest populations of cheetahs in the wild, but the highest rate of population increase is in South Africa, where over 18% of the world’s cheetahs now live. Nat Hab’s Secluded South Africa photo safari offers a chance to spot one of this growing population of cheetahs

Spot Cheetahs in the Wild

Nat Hab’s Namibia and Botswana Photo Safari visits three of the world’s best areas for viewing cheetahs:

The Ongava Private Reserve borders Namibia’s Etosha National Park. The heart of the park is a vast salt pan where perennial springs draw a multitude of game. The landscape supports grasslands and large camel thorn trees mixed with mopane. Bare and dry today, the depression offers Namibia’s best wildlife photography, with elephant, black and white rhino, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok, oryx, and kudu drawn to its waterholes, many of which are sourced by natural springs. Etosha is widely regarded as one of the best places to spot a cheetah.

The private Linyanti Reserve is one of the best wildlife-viewing regions in Botswana. Located on the banks of the Savute Channel, the heart of a legendary wildlife region is best known for its large number of predators. All the predators are found in the area—lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena and wild dog.

In the Okavango Delta, the Chitabe reserve comprises a varied habitat that supports a variety of wildlife constantly on view: elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, cheetah and all the plains game, including zebra, impala and red lechwe. Wild dogs are also known to frequent the area. Hippos abound in the clear channels that lace the delta, and birdlife is prolific, with more than 450 species.