American Cheetah Facts

Scientific Name: Miracinonyx trumani

A cougar sitting on a rock

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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: 150–200 pounds, depending on species
  • Lifespan: 8–12 years, but possibly up to 14 years
  • 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.

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.

Diet and Behavior

Like modern cheetahs, the lithe, long-legged American cheetah hunted 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.

Reproduction and Offspring

The reproduction behavior of the American Cheetah is unknown, but sources such as the San Diego Zoo Global Library speculate that their habits were similar to modern cheetahs. Cheetahs become sexually mature when they are between 20 and 23 months. They breed throughout the year.

Females have an estrous cycle—the amount of time they are sexually active—of 12 days, but they are actually only in heat for one to three days. Females demonstrate that they are receptive to males by urinating on bushes, trees and rocks. A male, picking up on the scent, begins yelping, and the female responds with yelps of her own as the male approaches. Female cheetahs will mate with more than one male over the course of their lifetime.

The female's gestation period is about one to three months. They give birth to one to eight offspring, called cubs, which are between 5 and 13 points. Offspring stay with their mother for 13 to 20 months. Cheetahs reach maturity and become sexually active by 2.5 to 3 years of age.

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 competition from humans, such as through hunting and competition for food, 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.

Sources