American Cheetah Facts

Scientific Name: Miracinonyx trumani

A cougar sitting on a rock
The American Cheetah was more closely related to this modern cougar.

Wikimedia Commons

The American Cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani and Miracinonyx inexpectatus) actually comprised two very different species. These species were predators that lived in the Pleistocene era in North America, about 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago. Interestingly, the American cheetah was more closely related to modern pumas and cougars than it was to cheetahs. If, in fact, the American Cheetah turns out not to have been a true cheetah. Scientists attribute this fact to convergent evolution, the tendency for animals in the same ecosystems to evolve the same general features.

Fast Facts: The American Cheetah

  • Scientific Names: Miracinonyx trumani and Miracinonyx inexpectatus
  • Common Name: American cheetah
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 5-6 feet long
  • Weight: 100-150 pounds, depending on species
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Plains of North America
  • Status: Extinct

Description

The American cheetah is an extinct genus of two feline species that were endemic to North America during the Pleistocene period, Miracinonyx inexpectatus and Miracinonyx intrumani. Researchers have pieced together fragments of an American cheetah skeleton to derive a picture of what these predators may have looked like.

The American cheetah had long legs, as well as a lithe body, blunt snout, and foreshortened face with enlarged nasal cavities (to allow for more efficient respiration). American cheetahs were estimated to have weighed about 150 to 200 pounds and measured about 5 to 6 feet in body length. Miracinonyx inexpectatus had shorter legs that were thought to be better equipped for climbing than the modern cheetah.

Diet and Behavior

Like modern cheetahs, the lithe, long-legged American cheetah made its living by pursuing speedy mammalian megafauna, including deer and prehistoric horses, across the rolling North American plains. However, there's no way to know if this ancient mammal could achieve modern cheetah-like bursts of speed in the 50-mph range, or if its speed limit was set by evolution to a much lower level.

Miracinonyx intrumani more closely resembled a modern cheetah, and may, indeed, have been capable of hitting top speeds of over 50 mph in pursuit of prey. Miracinonyx inexpectatus was built more like a cougar than a cheetah (though it was somewhat slimmer overall), and its fully retractable claws point to a possible arboreal lifestyle—that is, instead of chasing prey over the prairies like Miracinonyx intrumani, it may have leaped on them from the low branches of trees, or perhaps scrambled up trees to escape the notice of larger predators.

Habitat and Range

The two species of the American cheetah seem to have shared some important general characteristics, including a preference for open grasslands and plains of North America, particularly in what is now the western section of North America. As noted, Miracinonyx intrumani may have spent part of their lives in trees, stalking prey, as well as the plains and grasslands.

Reasons for Extinction

Scientists don't know exactly why the American cheetah became extinct, but they think that climate change, a shortage of food, and human pressure may have played a role. The American cheetah went extinct at the end of the last ice age—the same time that American lions, mammoths, and horses died off.

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