If there is one thing almost anyone could tell you about a cheetah is that they are fast; the fastest land mammal on the planet in fact. Reaching top speeds of 70 mph, cheetah’s can go from 0-60 mph in less than 3 seconds. That is faster than almost any sports car on the market! Running speed is made up of two things: stride length and number of strides taken. A cheetah’s stride length is between 20-25 feet. This makes them airborne for a distance more than 5 times their length. Their feet spend more time in the air when running than on the ground. At top speed they can have up to 4 strides per seconds. But what is it exactly that make cheetahs so fast?
The short answer is that their entire bodies are literally build for speed, from head to tail. Their long and slender build is aerodynamically purposeful, constructed to cut through wind with minimum resistance. This, along with a lightweight frame, allows for their impressive acceleration. A cheetah’s head is the smallest size relative to their bodies of any cat. This not only contributes to the aerodynamic design, but also allows them to keep their head completely still while running at full speed. The black markings found under their eyes are called “tear marks” and serve like the black paint under an athlete’s eye. This helps to reflect the sunlight out of their eyes while hunting at dawn and dusk. These markings also act like the sight on a riffle, allowing the cheetah to “aim” and further focus on its prey while hunting. In addition to these tear marks, cheetahs also have what is known as binocular vision. This useful feature enables them to see up to 3 miles away, allowing for the ability to spot and stalk prey from great distances.
Another similarity to athletes are their semi-retractable claws, which act like cleats to dig into the ground while running. Cheetahs also have fused ankle bones which function like braces, along with extended Achilles tendons for better shock absorption. The tail of a cheetah is long and flat which acts like the rudder on a boat to help steer and balance while at full speeds.
Although slender, cheetahs have a large chest cavity with sizable lungs and heart to pump air and blood to muscles while running at full force. Their shoulder blades are reduced and free floating which act like tiny axles for sharp, tight turns, even in mid air. This, along with pivoting hips, allows the legs to stretch farther apart when fully extended and closer together when the feet come back under the body, increasing their stride length.
Many similarities can be drawn between the cheetah and another notoriously fast human companion; the grey hound. However, one key difference between the two is where the power source of their speed comes from. In grey hounds their power comes from where most people would guess: their hind legs. In cheetahs, the main power source for their speed comes from their spine. A cheetah’s spine is proportionally the longest and most flexible of any large cat. When running, the spine flexes and stretches like a coiled spring, which increases stride length. This long flexible spine carries about 60% of the cat’s muscle mass. As a result, the cheetah can out run a grey hound at full speed by 25-30 mph. However, a cheetah can only hold these high speeds for very short sprints of only 30 seconds or up to about 500 meters. So, in a long distance race the grey hound would have the edge. Another fascinating comparison is a cheetah vs. a human. The fastest man in the world is Usain Bolt who holds the 100m world record at 9.58 seconds. At top speeds a cheetah could cover a similar distance of an entire football field in just over 3 seconds. Although cheetahs have the ability to reach these incredible speeds, they only have use for it while hunting. Here at Wildlife Safari our cheetahs don’t have to hunt for their food, so most days you will find them perfectly content being at rest!