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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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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs
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Dogs: They’re cute, they’re cuddly … and they can smell fear!

Today on Scatterbrained, John Green and friends go beyond the floof to reveal some fascinating facts about our canine pals—including the story of one Bloodhound who helped track down 600 criminals during his lifetime. (Move over, McGruff.) They’re also looking at the name origins of some of your favorite dog breeds, going behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, and dishing the details on how a breed gets to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

You can watch the full episode below.

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Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
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Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
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Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
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Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
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Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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