Cheetahs are such spectacular animals and different from the other big cats, which which makes viewing them all the more special. To be close enough to gaze into their exquisite amber eyes, is a totally different feeling than viewing lions’ or leopards’ eyes. It’s inexplainable but soul piercing. Thanks for the information regarding how they see – I knew they were day hunters but didn’t know about how the eyes’ cones worked in their favor. One of my favorite experiences was spending one on one time with a youngish cheetah in a private reserve, sitting next to him whilst listening to him purr as I was scratching his ears! Truly magical.
Over the last few weeks we have been blessed with a few incredible Cheetah sightings across the reserve and a frequent question that has been pondered and discussed on our vehicle is,
“How do Cheetah differ from leopards and other big cats?“
In a previous blog, Adam Bannister explains just how a cheetahs physical build is designed for speed, and how cheetahs find themselves at the bottom of the predator hierarchy when it comes to inter-predator conflict (between lion, spotted hyena, leopard and African wild dog).
Physical adaptations aside, for this blog I have chosen to expand on their uniqueness and highlight two further cheetah adaptations that I find rather interesting.
“Adaptation, in biology, is the process by which a species becomes fitted to its environment; it is the result of natural selection acting upon heritable variation over several generations. Organisms are adapted to their environments in a great variety of ways; in their structure, physiology, genetics, in their locomotion or dispersal, in their means of defence and attack, in their reproduction and development, and in other aspects.” – John L. Gittleman
Cheetahs do not roar, they purr
Although cheetah are part of the Felidae family, they are markedly different in both behaviour and anatomy from other big cats, and fall under a different subfamily (Felinae) and genus (Acinonyx) compared to leopards and lions.
In fact, cheetah are more closely related to smaller cats that purr than they are related to lions and leopards.
Without focusing too much on the biology, when a cat vibrates its larynx, or voice box, it causes the hyoid bones to resonate (somewhat like the Adam’s Apple in humans). In big cats, there is a lengthy tough cartilage that runs up the hyoid bones to the skull, which give the larynx enough flexibility to produce a full-throated, terrifying roar (we see this with lions and leopards).
Cheetah and other small cats, in comparison, have a voice box that is fixed in structure with divided vocal cords that vibrate with both inward and outward breaths. This enables cheetah to purr continuously, but it limits the range of other sounds and therefore prevents them from being able to roar. As a result, cheetah are one of the ‘bigger’ cats that do not roar.
So why don’t cheetah roar?
Roaring is a key component of big cats’ social behaviour and territoriality. It serves many functions from scaring off intruders, warn the pride of potential danger, or advertise presence and power. Cheetahs are at the bottom of the predator hierarchy and we know that they are not fighters by nature – they will rather use their speed for flight, choosing not to engage in conflict and avoid it where possible. As a result, there is less need for a pronounced form of communication such as a roar and so their communication has evolved somewhat differently to the other big cats.
They see in colour
Another interesting and noticeable difference when comparing cheetah and other big cats is to consider is a cheetahs eyesight.
Since most big cats in the African savanna are nocturnal, to avoid competing with other predators, cheetahs have adapted by mostly hunting during the day. As a result, cheetah cannot see as well as leopard and lion at night, but they have adapted to have spectacular day time vision.
To briefly unpack some of the fundamentals of vision, within the eye’s retina, there are two types of cells; rods and cones, that are receptors responsible for one’s sense of sight. These receptors are the part of the eye responsible for converting the light that enters your eye into electrical signals that can then be interpreted by the brain.
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Rods are responsible for picking up the amount of light and essentially important for vision at low light levels (“scotopic vision”). They do not mediate colour vision, and have a low spatial perceptivity.
Cones are active at higher light levels (“photopic vision”), and are capable of colour vision and are responsible for high spatial perceptivity.
Due to their diurnal nature, cheetahs are known to have more cones in their eyes (specifically a higher density of photoreceptors called S- and M- cones) compared to most other cat species. This allows cheetahs to discriminate between more colours.
Not only can they distinguish between differences in colour, but cheetah also have spectacular binocular vision, and can see detail across the open grassland to a distance of 5 km (3 miles), while humans with binoculars would have difficulty seeing the same detail!
A cheetahs field of vision is also far greater than that of humans, similar to other big cats. Due to the position of their eyes, cheetahs have a much broader panoramic view/peripheral vision in comparison to humans. This allows them to better scan the horizon and maintain visual of their prey whilst chasing at high speeds!
I could go on and on unpacking a number of other adaptations that make cheetahs unique, just like we could do for leopards or lions each in their own right. Every species we get to witness in this magical wilderness has evolved over millions of years with generations of natural selection and there’s a reason why certain genes have prevailed.
So next time you find yourself on safari or asking why certain animals differ from one another, remember that their species has adapted and evolved for a particular reason and hopefully we can deduce what that reason could be!
Absolutely Denise, “soul piercing” is a great way to describe it. Thank you very much, and thank you for sharing!