Have you ever wondered how the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is able to run as fast as it does? Despite what people think, the cheetah is not the fastest animal on earth. They are however the fastest land animal, and that is no simple feat; only with the help of the cheetah’s unique physiology is it able to reach such amazing speeds.
Reaching speeds of 64 m.p.h. is no easy task, but thanks to the cheetahs elongated strides they are able to speed up quickly. In fact, there are two instances during a cheetah’s stride when their feet don’t touch the ground at all. These two instances are when the cheetah’s legs are fully contracted and when they are fully extended; when their legs are fully extended, the cheetah’s spine actually flexes to allow a gape in the spine for longer strides. This flexing of the spine also acts much like an archer’s bow, storing energy and snapping the legs back under the body; this helps with acceleration by allowing cheetahs to reach strides of 20 feet.
So we know how the cheetah reaches it’s amazing speeds, but how do they maintain traction? Well, unlike other cats, cheetahs can never fully retract their claws which allows their claws to act similar to track spikes; gripping the ground. The pads of their feet also have unique folds (transversal) in them that further enhance their ability to adhere to the ground. The cheetah’s tail is another important aspect of the body when it comes to balance and traction. The tail of a cheetah measures at about 2/3 of the cheetah’s total body length, acting as a counterbalance to make sure they don’t topple forward during a run. The tail also has a flattened tip, which acts like a rudder during chases, helping to guide direction when a prey item is trying to escape.
All of these adaptations would be useless however if a cheetah wasn’t able to maintain their oxygen intake to fuel their muscles. In order to accommodate this problem, cheetahs have developed enlarged lungs, hearts, and livers. In fact, a cheetahs lungs, liver, and heart are proportionally 3 times larger than that of a lions! To get a grasp on how much oxygen a cheetah has to breathe in during a run, lets compare them to humans. A human takes an average 14-20 breaths per minute while resting and is capable of reaching around 80 breaths per minute under strenuous conditions; cheetahs have a comparative 16 breaths per minute while resting, but can reach up to 150 breaths per minute while running at full speed.
Come visit the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary to catch a glimpse of Mau, our own speed machine. With a habitat that was specifically built for cheetahs, at 100 yards long and 40 yards wide, Mau has enough room to fully accelerate; helping to highlight the extreme energy potential these animals possess.