The lion might be the king of the jungle, but we know who would win in a foot race.
The cheetah, the fastest land animal on the planet, is one of 38 big cat species, however, it is not always listed under the ‘seven big cats’ umbrella, an elite group that includes lions, tigers, jaguars, and other members of the Panthera genus.
That’s because cheetahs are, quite literally, in a class by themselves.
Cheetahs represent the only living member of the Acinonyx genus. Like cougars, cheetahs are classified as non-Panthera big cats.
One of the main distinctions between the members of the Panthera and non-Panthera groups is the vocalizations of the big cats.
Lions, jaguars, tigers, and other members of the Panthera genus are known for their mighty roars, however, they cannot purr like a housecat.
Cheetahs, along with cougars, pumas, and others, can purr but they do not have the ability to roar.
Even without a roar, cheetahs are formidable hunters that are built for speed. They are agile, stealthy, and ruthless when attacking their prey.
They make good use of their sharp claws, keen eyesight, and sleek, powerful bodies to position themselves as an apex predator.
Cheetahs may be in a class by themselves, but there are several non-Panthera big cats that are similar to cheetahs. Here are a few.
Scientific name: Puma concolor
Quick summary: A big cat of the Americas
At first glance, you may not think that cougars and cheetahs are similar. After all, the cougar lacks the cheetah’s distinctive markings, and the two animals make their homes on opposite sides of the world.
Cougars are native to the Americas, whereas cheetahs are found in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
Cougars, in general, are only slightly smaller than cheetahs. Adult male cougars stand roughly 24 to 35 inches high at the shoulder while male cheetahs average between 27 and 37 cm in height.
Cheetahs are known mostly by that single name, but there are a number of different names given to the cougar.
The cougar is actually a record-holder in the Guinness Book of World Records because it has more names than any other animal, including puma, mountain lion, panther, and catamount, a mash-up of ‘cat of the mountains.’
Although they are both powerful and intimidating, neither the cheetah nor the cougar poses a big threat to humans. They both prefer to stay clear of people and will only attack in extreme circumstances, like if the animal was starving.
The average litter sizes for both cougars and cheetahs are about three cubs. Like cheetah mothers, female cougars will raise their young until they are about 20 to 24 months old.
Scientific name: Herpailurus yaguarondi
Quick summary: Genetically similar to the cheetah, only smaller
Jaguarundis are found in Central and South America. Like cheetahs, jaguarundis cannot fully retract their back claws. This could be because they are genetically similar to cheetahs, as well as to cougars.
You wouldn’t guess this by looking at the jaguarundi. Although they are sleek and long like cheetahs, they are smaller. Jaguarundis measure only about 14 inches tall at the shoulder thanks to their proportionately shorter legs.
Depending on its habitat, the jaguarundi’s fur might be black, grayish-brown, or reddish-brown. The jaguarundi differs from other big cats in that the back of its ears is the same color as the rest of its fur.
Like the cheetah, the jaguarundi hunts mostly during the day. They are most active from dawn until dusk.
Both of these cats use this as a way to avoid competition and conflicts with larger nocturnal predators.
Scientific name: Caracal caracal
Quick summary: A large-eared cousin to the cheetah
The native territory of the caracal overlaps that of the cheetah. Caracals, which are small cats with oversized, tufted ears, can be found in the grasslands of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
The caracal is a speedy and agile hunter, like the cheetah. It cannot run as fast as the cheetah, but it has strong, muscular hind legs that help it leap more than nine feet in the air or to make a powerful pounce to catch its prey.
Caracals and cheetahs are both solitary animals that do not live in social groups. Both animals prefer to hunt alone.
The males and females of each type of cat only come together for mating, though the females form a small family group with their cubs until they reach maturity.
Scientific name: Leopardus pardalis
Quick summary: A spotted cat of the Americas
Visually, ocelots, with their spotted coats, look closer to cheetahs than cougars and caracals. Cheetahs, however, are the only big cat with a black streak resembling a tear stain running down from the inside corners of their eyes.
While both the cheetah and the ocelot are able to adapt to different types of habitats, ocelots prefer dense forests, lush jungles, and thick foliage.
Cheetahs, on the other hand, favor open areas with high visibility, such as savannahs and grasslands,
Ocelots hunt a wide range of mammals, reptiles, and birds. They have even been known to attack their prey in trees and water, as well as on the ground. They are excellent climbers and swimmers.
Half a century ago, there was a drastic decline in the ocelot population because the animals were hunted for their beautiful pelts.
Bans on the importation and trade of all spotted cat pelts started in the late 1980s. Since then, ocelot numbers have bounced back.
Scientific name: Leptailurus serval
Quick summary: A long-legged cat
The serval, like the cheetah, is the last remaining member of its genus. A medium-sized cat, the serval is long, sleek, and muscular. The legs of this cat are proportionately longer than those of any other cat species.
A beautiful cat, the serval has gold fur with black lines and spots.
Between three or four black strikes extend from the back of the serval’s head down to the shoulders. The stripes turn to dots of various sizes that cover the back and legs of the animal.
A solitary hunter, the serval hunts its prey at night as well as during the day. It tends to stick with small prey items, such as rodents, insects, frogs, snakes, and birds.
Servals can leap more than six and a half feet in the air to snag their prey.
Both cheetahs and servals have gestational periods of roughly three months. Serval cubs mature more rapidly, though.
The litters of between one to four young are mature enough to strike out on their own at twelve months of age.
6. Chinese Desert Cat
Scientific name: Felis bieti
Quick summary: A striped cat from China
The Chinese desert cat, also known as the Chinese mountain cat and the Chinese steppe cat, is found in a relatively small territory on the Tibetan Plateau.
Despite its name, the Chinese desert cat is rarely seen in the low-lying desert regions. They are more likely to inhabit the higher-elevation alpine steppe and grasslands at the edge of the plateau.
The Chinese desert cat is a nocturnal hunter. Rodents, reptiles, and birds are its favorite meals.
At between 16 and 20 pounds, the Chinese mountain cat may look like a large house cat rather than a cheetah-like apex predator.
It has light tan fur with accents of darker tan, with tufts of black hair on its pointed ears. Monochromatic stripes can be faintly seen on its torso, face, and legs, and black stripes on its tail.
Cheetahs can reproduce year-round, but Chinese desert cats have a breeding season. They breed between January and March and have litter sizes comparable to cheetahs, two to four cubs.
7. Eurasian Lynx
Scientific name: Lynx lynx
Quick summary: The largest of the lynx family
The Eurasian lynx, the biggest of all lynx varieties, is between 22 and 30 inches tall at the shoulder. This cat differs from the cheetah in that its fur is longer, fluffier, and tufted.
Like the cheetah, though, the Eurasian lynx’s pelt is spotted.
The Eurasian lynx may not be as large as a cheetah, but it is a bold and aggressive hunter.
It is not afraid to take down prey that is much bigger than it is, particularly roe deer, white-tailed deer, moose, and reindeer. One deer will provide several days’ worth of meals for the Eurasian lynx.
The Eurasian lynx has a large natural habitat range, from Northern and Central Europe to Asia to the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Its population, however, is dwindling because of habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and poaching.
Most Eurasian lynx mothers give birth to twins. Larger litter sizes are uncommon.
The babies mature more rapidly than cheetah cubs and they are ready to leave their mother’s side when they are about ten months old.
As the fastest land animal on the planet, the cheetah is a fierce hunter, but it is not usually included in big cats with lions and tigers. As a non-Panthera big cat, the cheetah, as well as the cougar, Eurasian lynx, ocelot, and the others listed here, cheetahs can’t roar like a mighty lion. It can, however, purr like a kitten.
These stealthy and sleek apex predators are fast and ferocious when stalking their prey, but generally prefer to live a life of solitude. They use their fur colors, either solid or patterned, to blend into their surroundings and surprise their quarry.
They make their homes on every continent on Earth, with the exception of Antarctica.