cheetah (chēˈtə) [key], carnivore of the cat family, Acinonyx jubatus, native to Africa and SW Asia as far east as India. Formerly numerous all over their range, they are extinct now in Asia except for small numbers in Iran's Dasht-e Kavir, and are threatened in all of their range. Very little is know about the rare and elusive Saharan cheetah.

The cheetah's method of hunting deviates from that of most cats in that it runs down its prey, rather than stalking it and pouncing upon it for the kill. This doglike method of hunting is suited to its habitat, which is open grassland. The swiftest four-footed animal alive, it can achieve bursts of speed of over 60 mi (95 km) per hr and is the only animal capable of running down black bucks and gazelles.

An average cheetah is about 21/2 ft (75 cm) tall at the shoulder and weighs about 100 lb (45 kg). It has long legs and a tawny coat with closely spaced round black spots. It is unique among cats in having nonretractile claws. Cheetahs are tamable and were used for centuries in India for hunting game; they sometimes have been called hunting leopards.

Cheetahs are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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