Things have been a pretty grim here at Ferrebeekeeper lately, what with the inexorable takeover of the labor market by machines, the child-killing Christmas demon Krampus, and the death of the universe. To cheer things up as we go into the weekend, here is a post about baby cheetahs. Some people may claim this topic is a cynical attempt to exploit the endearing cubs and drive up ratings. To those naysayers I respond “baby cheetahs!”
Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)are well known as the fastest land animal–capable of running at blazing speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph). To run at such a velocity the cheetah was forced to forgo some offensive advantages possessed by other comparably-sized cats. Cheetahs’ jaws are smaller and their claws are permanently fixed in place–which makes their slashing implements shorter and duller than the razor sharp claws of other hunting cats. Because they concentrate on running prowess to hunt they can never risk a sports injury from fighting. These adaptations make it difficult for mother cheetahs to defend their cubs from predators. Naturally the tiny cubs can not rely on the mother cheetah’s best defense—her legendary speed.
Female cheetahs gestate for ninety to ninety-eight days and give birth to a litter of 3 to 9 cubs which each weigh 150 to 300 g (5.3 to 11 oz.) at birth. Since they are so small and slow, (and since they impede their mother’s hunting) cubs suffer from high mortality. Evolution however has utilized certain tricks to minimize the danger they face. Unlike many feline cubs, cheetahs are born already covered with spots. They are adept from a young age at hiding within thorny scrub. Additionally the cubs have a remarkable adaptation to aid their defense. Until they are near maturity, they possess long punk-rock mantle of downy hair along their neck. These wild manes act like ghillie suits—breaking up the cubs’ outlines when they are hidden in dense scrub. The mantles also mimic the Don King style hair of the honey badger (well-known as one of the craziest, bravest, angriest small animals of the savannah). No animals want to mess with honey badgers since the angry badgers despise their own lives only slightly less than those of other living things and are thus extremely unpredictable.
When cheetahs reach adolescence they lose their mantles and acquire their extraordinary speed, but they still have a certain kittenish playfulness. I was once in the Washington DC zoo on Sunday morning (when the cheetahs are each given a frozen rabbit as a treat). The cheetah run in the National Zoo is long and narrow giving the animals space to build up full speed. The male adolescent cheetahs were excited for their rabbits. They were crouching and slinking back and forth faster than most people could run. One of the adolescent cheetahs got too close to the powerful electric fence surrounding the enclosure and there was a sizzling “pop” as he accidentally touched his delicate nose to the wire. The young male ran off and, because cheetahs are bred to the bone for the chase, his brother ran after him. They ran faster and faster, becoming an exquisite blur. The elegant forms left footprints of fire behind them until the first cheetah slid to a (10 meter) sliding stop and emitted an otherworldly angry chirp-yowl. The spectacle only lasted a moment, but compared to those cheetahs, all other runners I have seen–athletes, racehorses, greyhounds, rabbits–all seemed slow and awkward.