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Cheetahs are unusual felines that live in Africa. At one point, their range extended across India and the Middle East. The cheetah is a streamlined cat that weighs between 40 and 65 kg (88 to 140 lb) and is about 1 m (3.2 ft) in length, excluding its tail. Cheetahs are covered in a beautiful black-and-orange spotted pattern, and their name (derived from Sanskrit) means "variegated body."
Cheetahs are most famous as the world's fastest land animal. Cheetahs can run as fast as 120 km/h (75 mph) for short bursts of up to 460 m (1500 ft). They hunt fast animals such as gazelles and the impala, occasionally taking the young of larger animals such as wildebeests and zebras. During a chase, a cheetah's respiratory rate increases from 60 to 150 breaths per minute. Its body is adapted for sprints, featuring an enlarged heart and lungs. Cheetahs can go from a standstill to 70 mph in three seconds, better than most high-end sports cars.
Cheetahs are sufficiently different from other felines that they are given their own genus, Acinonyx. Unlike most other cats, cheetahs lack climbing ability, and rely entirely on speed for hunting prey. Prey that is able to get into a tree can therefore escape, but the gazelles that cheetahs hunt lack climbing ability as well.
Like lions, whose range they overlap, cheetahs are highly social and hierarchical. Males maintain territories between 37 and 160 square kilometers in extent, depending on the availability of food in the local area. Rather than going at it alone, males make friends with a few others and cooperate in a unit called a coalition. Studies have shown that coalitions are about six times more likely to maintain territories than lone males.
Unlike the male cheetah, the female cheetah does not maintain territories, and instead has a home range which may be significantly larger than a typical male territory. Males try to pick territories where several female home ranges overlap, so as to maximize its chances of reproduction.
The cheetah is sometimes considered a "big cat," sometimes not. Technically, a big cat should be able to roar, like tigers, lions, leopards, and jaguars, but a cheetah cannot. A cheetah is also significantly smaller and weaker than those big cats, though it is far larger than a house cat. Instead of roaring, cheetahs use other vocalizations to communicate, such as chirping, churring, growling, yowling, and purring. Because their natural range has been so sharply restricted due to human encroachment over the last few hundred years, the cheetah is currently considered a vulnerable species. There are about 12,400 cheetahs in the wild.