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Why do cheetahs have spots?

Asked by: Jacqueline Marcovici
School: Maine- Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests: Playing football Family:  Baby sister and older brother
Career Interest: Famous girl football player

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Bioengineering

Research area: Turbulence, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, Modeling Ecosystems, Restoration of Wolves, Animal Rights PhD school: University of Virginia, Aerospace Engineering, 1977 Interests/hobbies: All things Italian especially Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Ducatis, Model trains & cars Family: Wife, Karen, a registered yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; 2 Alaskan Malamutes, four more in our hearts  

Before we talk about the spots, let’s discover more about this majestic creature. The cheetah, a marvel of evolution, is the fastest land animal in the world. The cheetah’s slender, long-legged body is built for speed. Typically tan in color with black spots all over their bodies, cheetahs can also be distinguished from other big cats by their smaller size, spotted coats, small heads and ears and distinctive "tear stripes" that stretch from the corner of the eye to the side of the nose. Historically cheetahs were found throughout Africa and Asia from South Africa to India. They are now confined to parts of eastern, central and southwestern Africa and a small portion of Iran.

The name "cheetah" comes from a Hindi word meaning "spotted one" or from the Sanskrit word "chitraka". An adult has yellow or tan fur with solid black round or oval spots. The spots cover nearly the entire body; only the white throat and abdomen are unmarked. The tail ends with 4-6 black rings and a bushy, white tuft. The head is small with eyes set high and a black "tear mark" running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the mouth. An adult cheetah weighs approximately 120 pounds, is about 32 inches tall at the shoulder and 50 inches long with a tail approximately 30 inches long.

Now about those spots, cheetahs have spots because just as other animals they need to blend in with their environments. For cheetahs having spots creates an illusion. Suppose you were walking in a forest on a bright, sunny day and you looked down at the ground. What would you see? You would like see splotches of sunlight and splotches of shadow. That pattern is very similar to the one that a cheetah would create because of its spots.


Last Updated: 3/1/17