Athletic by Nature (1): Cheetahs Are Faster than Ferrari


Everyone looks up to athletes and sports champions; everyone dreams of a fit body. While many work out to get fit, others practice sports to maintain their fitness; some champion the sports they practice, but only a lucky few are athletes by nature. Different wild animals enjoy very unique physical abilities that are essential for their survival. If we can say so, these amazing features would enable their owners to achieve historical Olympic records. From super-fast runners to mind-blowing weightlifters and skilful swimmers, the animal kingdom is ready to set impressive examples.

Ask anyone which is the world’s largest creature, and they will say blue whales; ask them which is the world’s fastest creature and the simple answer will be cheetahs. Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are the fastest animals on land, reaching speeds up to 120 km per hour; these incredible cats shatter all records. While the Jamaican runner Usain Bolt set the world’s fastest record—100 meters in 9.58 seconds—the fasted recorded cheetah, named Sarah, clocked a time of 5.95 seconds. A Ferrari Enzo can accelerate to 97 km per hour in 3.14 seconds, whereas cheetahs can go from 0 km to 104 km per hour in three strides in only 3 seconds. Amazing, is it not? How does this happen?

Well, we can say that cheetahs are built for speed, and that speed is the result of some very special aerodynamic physical attributes. For example, it has a slender lightweight body, a small head, a flattened rib cage, and long thin legs that minimize air resistance. A cheetah’s tail is more than half of its length, which maintains control and balance during running so it does not spin out during fast turns.

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The wide strides cheetahs can make are striking, reaching 7.5 meters wide thanks to their flexible spine; moreover, cheetahs have special cleat feet that help them grip the ground while running. They can complete up to three strides in one second with one foot on the ground at any time. Additionally, cheetahs are equipped with oversized powerful hearts that pump huge amounts of blood, as well as large lungs and nostrils that allow for fast and deep air intake. They also have long eyes that provide a fast, wide-angle view of their surroundings even at top speed.

However, speed has its drawbacks; namely, the need to rest as it puts serious strain on the animal’s heart. As a result, a cheetah’s chase is short-lived, typically lasting about 30 seconds covering about 550 meters. Another drawback is that their slender small bodies make them weaker than other predators. This means that they will always run, rather than fight, when attacked. They also would run rather than defend their young against predators, which  contributes to the survival problem of such an endangered species. Unfortunately, only an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs live outside zoos today in Africa and Iran.

Again and again, Mother Nature surprises us; this time, with its gifted champions. This brief account is only an invitation for eager minds to know how different amazing creatures work and to speculate “the work of Allah, who perfected all things”—Surat An-Naml (verse 88).


The article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Summer 2018.

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