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A Young Cheetah Threatens a Hat

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!”

Cheetah Cubs must survive by hiding (image from http://cutearoo.com)

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.

A Mother Cheetah with her cubs at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

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.

Cheetah Cub

Honey Badger

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.

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.  I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.

At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children.  Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death.  Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help.  His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae.  Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force.  Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting.  In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion. 

I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting).  Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.

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