Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Cheetah's Speed Has a Downside

Gepardjagt1 (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photo Credit: Marlene Thyssen (via Wikimedia Commons)
We all know the cheetah is one fast cat. They can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a little over 3 seconds, and can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, making the cheetah the fastest land animal. Watch a cheetah run and you can't help but be impressed. Their stride can be as long as 25 feet, and at top speed, they can make 3 strides per second. Unfortunately, this amazing speed has a downside for the cheetah.

A cheetah is literally built for speed - their bodies are aerodynamic in shape, they have huge hearts for pumping lots of blood, large lungs and nostrils, a flexible spine, and a long tail that can act as a rudder and counterweight to keep the cat steady as he runs and turns. This sounds great for the cheetah, but it turns out that running is practically the only survival skill he has.

The cheetah weighs an average of 125 pounds, which is small for a big cat. When the cheetah runs at top speed (which he can only do in a short burst), the heart pumps so hard and the body becomes so hot that brain damage can occur if the cat doesn't rest before eating. During the rest period, other predators or scavengers can come in and steal the prey, and there's nothing the cheetah can do about it. The cat is exhausted, and due to his aerodynamic shape, he doesn't have the muscle mass or strong jaws and teeth needed to fight back. All he can do is run.

Some people believe the overspecialization is part of why the cheetah is endangered, but most researchers believe the primary issue is the usual human created problem of habitat loss, along with loss of genetic variation. Fortunately, groups such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund are working to make sure this beautiful cat survives. 

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