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15 Fast Facts About Cheetahs

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You probably know that they’re the fastest land animal in the world, but there’s plenty more to learn about these striking big cats.

1. THE FASTEST (KNOWN) CHEETAH WAS NAMED SARAH.

Even among the superlative species, one cheetah had to be the fastest. And as far as humans know, that especially speedy cat was Sarah, who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo until her death earlier this year at age 15. In 2012, then-11-year-old Sarah was filmed running on a U.S.A. Track and Field-certified course at an unmatched pace of 61 miles per hour. It’s possible that wild cheetahs have run faster, but Sarah’s 5.95 second 100-meter dash holds the known planet-wide record.

2. CHEETAH’S HAVE A WIDE RANGE OF ADAPTATIONS THAT ALLOW FOR SUCH EXTREME SPEEDS.

It takes a lot of distinct biology to be able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in under three seconds: Cheetahs have extra large livers to better mobilize the glycogen molecules that provide quick bursts of energy. They have enlarged adrenal glands, lungs, nasal passages, and hearts to accommodate extra oxygen in order to fuel their muscles. A comparatively long, heavy tail provides a counter balance for tight turns at top speeds. Without claw sheaths, their claws stick out even when retracted—providing cleat-like grip to the bottom of their feet. And fused tibia and fibula bones in the cheetah’s legs make them more stable when sprinting after prey.

3. BUT THESE ADAPTATIONS COME WITH A RANGE OF HANDICAPS.

The cheetah’s fused leg bones make them far less proficient climbers than other big cats. Their oversized respiratory track and nasal passages take up too much room in the cheetah's skull for their jaw to accommodate large teeth. And the energy surges that give them their speed give off lactic acid that leaves the cheetah with painful cramps after just 30 seconds at top speed. Even if that wasn’t the case, after around 30 seconds of that type of exertion, a cheetah’s brain will begin to overheat.

4. AFTER A POPULATION “BOTTLENECK” ABOUT 12,000 YEARS AGO, CHEETAHS ARE GENETICALLY WEAK.

In the 1980s, researchers made a startling discovery about cheetahs, who were known to be difficult to breed and prone to illness: they were all virtually clones of one another. Almost the entire genetic makeup of any one cheetah mirrored the genetic makeup of every other cheetah. Scientists deduced that the onset of the last ice age had decimated the cheetah population, leaving the few remaining animals to interbreed. The shrunken gene pool means that, even now, cheetahs have abnormally low fertility and are prone to birth defects that makes conservation efforts particularly crucial.

5. BECAUSE OF THIS, CHEETAHS ARE ON THE DECLINE.

With an estimated 90 percent of cheetah cubs dying before they’re 3 months old, the population struggles to be self-sustaining. Combined with a loss of habitat to humans and stiff competition with even bigger big cats for dwindling food supplies, cheetah numbers have been decreasing for about a century. It’s estimated that over 100,000 cheetahs roamed the earth in 1900, but now that number has plummeted to a mere 9000 to 12,000 cheetahs in Africa with a few hundred more in Iran. These dire numbers have earned the species a spot on the Endangered Species Act list and a Vulnerable status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.

6. FEMALE CHEETAHS ARE LONERS BUT THE MALES SOMETIMES HUNT IN GROUPS.

Female cheetahs leave their families at around 2 years old to roam and hunt alone in territories that stretch up to 1500 miles. Males, on the other hand, often remain in a group with their brothers, even after maturity. This facilitates the cheetah breeding practices, which—contrary to much of the animal kingdom—consists of females choosing their mates.

7. CHEETAHS HAVE BEEN HELPING PEOPLE HUNT FOR CENTURIES.

Cheetahs have never been fully domesticated, but semi-tame cats have been helping people hunt for over 5000 years. From ancient Sumerians, to the Egyptian pharaohs, to the Indian emperors, and even farther north in Normandy with William the Conqueror, captive cheetahs have been prized hunting companions for the rich and royal. Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire, was said to have hundreds or even possibly thousands of “pet” cheetahs. The footage above shows the practice still in place in India in the 1930s.

8. JOSEPHINE BAKER TOOK HER PET CHEETAH EVERYWHERE.

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For her show at the Casino de Paris in 1930, club owner Henri Varna gifted Baker with a cheetah named Chiquita to appear in her act. After the show, Baker kept Chiquita as a beloved pet who went everywhere with her: riding in her car, tagging along on vacations, sleeping in bed with Baker and her lover/manager, and even—according to famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland—going to the movies.

9. MOST OF THE TIME, CHEETAHS ARE PRETTY LAZY.

Even though they're known for their incredible sprinting abilities, cheetahs actually spend most of their time doing nothing at all—almost 90 percent of their time. A 2014 study found that cheetahs only spend about 12 percent of their day actually moving. The rest of the time is spent lazing around, conserving energy for those big bursts of speed.

10. THE PHRASE “HAKUNA MATATA” FIRST APPEARED IN DISNEY’S CHEETAH.

The 1989 live-action film told the story of a pair of L.A. teens who spend six months in Africa with their parents. At first reluctant, their adventure starts when they adopt a cheetah cub, give her the name Duma, and later have to rescue her from an evil Indian storekeeper with the help of a local Masai boy named Morogo. Although The Lion King was responsible for popularizing “hakuna matata,” the phrase first appears in this film.

11. CHEETAHS CAN’T ROAR.

Unlike all other big cats, cheetahs can’t roar. Like housecats (and pumas), they purr but their most distinct sound is a chirping noise so bird-like it once confused Theodore Roosevelt.

"When I first heard it," the former President once wrote, "I was sure that it was uttered by some bird, and I looked about quite a time before finding it was the call of a cheetah."

12. CHEETAHS ARE IN A GENUS ALL ON THEIR OWN.

Cheetahs are the only members of the genus Acinonyx, which roughly translates to “non-moving claws.” Although they may resemble leopards or other big cats, their non-retractable claws and inability to roar set them completely apart. 

13. SO-CALLED “KING CHEETAHS” ARE THE RESULT OF A RARE GENETIC MUTATION.

Brad via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

First spotted in Zimbabwe in 1926, the king cheetah is notable for its distinct fur pattern of big blotchy black spots that often merge into one another to create stripes and other patterns. It was originally classified as a separate species by naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock, who later rescinded the classification. Although a couple dozen skins were discovered, the first king cheetah wasn’t photographed until 1974 and very little was known about what caused the distinct markings until two king cheetah cubs were born in 1981 and found to have a rare genetic mutation.

14. ENGINEERS ARE LOOKING TO CHEETAHS FOR ROBOT INSPIRATION.

Two separate groups of robotics engineers have recently made strides with robots based on a cheetah’s gait. In 2012, Boston Dynamics set a new record for legged robotic land speed when their robot, The Cheetah, topped 29 mph on a treadmill. And just last year, MIT upped the ante with another headless cheetah robot—this time government-funded—that can run untethered and navigate its own way over obstacles.

15. DOGS MAKE GREAT COMPANIONS FOR CHEETAHS IN CAPTIVITY.

For baby cheetahs without maternal care—either because they’ve been orphaned or separated from their mother for medical reasons—human caretakers often introduce the cub to a puppy to serve as a companion. The two form a strong intra-species bond that provides a benefit into adulthood. Cheetahs are naturally anxious animals built for “flight” in the face of uncertainty. Dogs, on the other hand, are bold and curious, which allows them to provide a calming presence and set of social cues to their cheetah pals.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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