The cheetah (pronounced/ˈchē-tə/) (Acinonyx jubatus), also known as the hunting leopard, is a big cat that occurs mainly in eastern and southern Africa and a few parts of Iran. It is the only extant member of the genus Acinonyx, and is placed in the subfamily Felinae. The cheetah was first described by German naturalist Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber in 1775. The cheetah is characterised by a slender body, deep chest, spotted pelage, a small rounded head, black tear-like streaks on the face, long thin legs and a long spotted tail. Its lightly built, thin form is in sharp contrast with the robust build of the other big cats. The cheetah reaches nearly 70 to 90 centimetres (28 to 35in) at the shoulder, and weighs 21–72 kilograms (46–159lb). While it is taller than the leopard, it is notably smaller than the lion. Basically yellowish tan or rufous to grayish white, the coat of the cheetah is uniformly covered with nearly 2,000 black, solid spots. The upper parts are in stark contrast to the underbelly, that is completely white. Every cheetah has a unique pattern of spots on its coat; hence this serves as a distinct identity for each individual. The cheetah is often confused with the leopard and the cougar.
Their main hunting strategy is to trip swift prey such as various antelope species and hares with its dewclaw. Almost every facet of the cheetah's anatomy has evolved to maximise its success in the chase, the result of an evolutionary arms race with its prey. Due to this specialisation, however, the cheetah is poorly equipped to defend itself against other large predators, with speed being its main means of defence. In the wild, the cheetah is a prolific breeder, with up to nine cubs in a litter. The majority of cubs do not survive to adulthood, mainly as a result of depredation from other predators. The rate of cub mortality varies from area to area, from 50% to 75%, and in extreme cases such as the Serengeti ecosystem, up to 90%. Cheetahs are notoriously poor breeders in captivity, though several organizations, such as the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, have succeeded in breeding high numbers of cubs.
The cheetah is listed as vulnerable, facing various threats including loss of habitat and prey; conflict with humans; the illegal pet trade; competition with and predation by other carnivores; and a gene pool with very low variability. It is a charismatic species and many captive cats are "ambassadors" for their species and wildlife conservation in general.
Acinonyx is a genus within the cat family. The only living species of this genus, the cheetah, A. jubatus, occurs and thrives in open grasslands of Africa and Asia. Though often described as a big cat, this term is used primarily to describe cats of the genus Panthera, ruling out the cheetah.
Several other species of cheetah-like cats existed since the late Pliocene epoch but are extinct today. These cats occurred in Africa, parts of Europe and Asia about 10,000 years ago. Several similar species, classified in the genus Miracinonyx, lived in North America at the same time; these may have been more closely related to pumas.
Acinonyx was first described by Brookes in 1828. In 1993, it was placed in a monophyletic subfamily, Acinonychinae. Molecular phylogenetic analysis has shown that it is the sister group of the genus Puma, and it is now placed within the subfamily Felinae.
Several fossil Acinonyx species in addition to the living cheetah have been described: