The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is the fastest animal on land, and can reach speeds of nearly 65 mph. In the wild their speed and agility make them excellent hunters, and they can often be seen chasing their prey in small groups. While not all cheetahs live in social groups (called a coalition), living as part of a coalition can have many benefits for the cheetah.
In general when cheetahs reach sexual maturity, the female cheetah will usually become solitary, while the male cheetah will usually form small social coalitions with other male cheetahs. Most often these coalitions of cheetahs are composed of brothers. However, unrelated males of a similar age are also known to form strong coalitions, and sometimes a single male will join a group of brothers. On average, a male coalition will contain between three and four individuals.
There are two main benefits for males forming coalitions. Firstly, this type of social structure allows them to have greater control over their territory, which ensures they have a greater chance of breeding with females which roam within this territory. Secondly, these social structures allow cheetahs to hunt much larger prey than they would have if they had remained solitary.
Within these coalitions, there has been little observation of any hierarchy forming between the males. Instead males are thought to have a co-operative relationship whereby there is little aggression exhibited between the individuals. Aggression only seems to arise during mating or when feeding on a small kill, but even if a squabble does occur within the group, this is only very minor and hardly ever leads to serious in-fighting (Guthrie, 2002).
The social bonds shared between male cheetahs are extremely strong and they will strengthen this bond through daily head rubbing and grooming. While males will share and defend a territory of around thirty square kilometres, the boundaries of the territory they defend continually changes.
A strong male group is thought to hold the best territorial locations for up to twenty months before moving on, much longer than that held by a solitary male cheetah. Hence, they occupy a territory which encompasses many females for much longer when living as part of a coalition, and are thus more likely to mate (Guthrie, 2002).
While male cheetahs are extremely territorial, and will fight competing coalitions viciously for the best locations, female cheetahs are more diverse in their living patterns. Rather than seeking out territories, female cheetahs will have a much broader range of around eight hundred square kilometres in order to follow the migratory patterns of their prey. However, on encountering a male, the female cheetah will remain with the male for up to three days before moving on (Guthrie, 2002).
Cheetahs are characterised as having a rather ‘promiscuous’ mating behaviour, whereby both the male and female cheetah will mate with numerous partners, thus allowing the cheetah to breed all year round. As the mortality rate of young cheetahs is extremely high, only around five percent survive into adulthood (Guthrie, 2002); this is extremely beneficial for the survival of cheetahs.
Guthrie, W. (2002) ‘Social Behaviour of the Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)’, Davidson College, [Online] Available from: http://www.bio.davidson.edu/people/vecase/Behavior/Spring2002/Guthrie/SocialStructure.html [Last Accessed: 17-02-2010]