I’m cheating a bit here (pun seriously not intended) because it’s no longer considered a sub-species, but the king cheetah looks so awesome I just had to find out more about it.
It looks like it took off after a gazelle before its spots dried, and over the years its appearance has been blamed on almost everything, from genetics and environment to wild and passionate affairs with other African predators. So guess which bit I’m going to talk about first.
In what could be the Romeo and Juliet of the savannah, a hyena and a leopard took a roll in the grass and gave birth to the nsui-fsi, a large feline with black and white stripes and non-retractable claws that went on to terrify the locals of Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. White settlers dismissed this as nonsense until 1926, when Major A. Cooper came across the skin of a big cat with thick fur and spots running into blotches.
He sent a photo to The Field magazine, suggesting a leopard had done the dirty with a cheetah instead, but when zoologist R.I. Pocock later examined it at the British Museum, he declared the birth of the king: Acinonyx rex. Or, rather charitably, “Cooper’s cheetah”.
A royal glimpse was definitely a special occasion, because over the following 50 years, the king cheetah was seen only 11 times, mostly in Zimbabwe, Botswana and north of the Vaal river in South Africa. And the next major appearance was technically an abdication.
Ten years after its opening in 1971, South Africa’s Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre saw the birth of a king cheetah cub. Astonishing, especially since its mother was of regular cheetah clothing. Two days later, a female they had sent to Port Elizabeth also had a king cub, so any notion of a different species disappeared faster than said animal after its prey.
Thanks to her centre and meticulous breeding records, Van Dyk herself helped establish that the king pattern was a mutation requiring both parents to be “carriers”. The specific gene that goes awry is called Taqpep, and also causes blotched patterns in domestic tabby cats. But why does it happen?
Being a recessive trait, a king coat could indicate a reduced gene pool, and cheetahs have been ousted from most of their range over the past 100 years. With a reduced playground, you need to adapt to other areas too, so on the plus side, blotches might be helpful in woodlands – especially if leopards abound, who are much less amorous towards cheetahs in real life. As is every other African predator!
Built for speed rather than strength – topping 103 km/h (64 mph) in short bursts – the cheetah has trouble defending its hard-won prey, and its cubs have a ridiculous survival rate of just 10%. This, with even fewer places to stretch its legs thanks to habitat destruction, makes the king cheetah an even more rare and incredible sight, so let’s hope humans can change their spots too. I’d recommend a different method, though.
Latin: Acinonyx jubatus (formerly Acinonyx rex)
What? Cheetah with blotches and stripes instead of spots
Where? Zimbabwe, Botswana and parts of South Africa
How big? Head and body length about 1.1-1.4 m / 3.5-4.5 ft, with a tail about 65-80 cm / 25.5-31.5 ” long
Endangered? It’s not a species in and of itself, but the mutation is rare. The African cheetah is considered “Vulnerable” all round, however.
Probable motto: I’m so fast even my spots run.
They look beautiful. Do they need my help at all?
Habitat destruction and a high infant mortality rate can take a toll, so the cheetah needs plenty of help overall:
As for the king cheetah, there are about 100 in the world, although it’s not exactly accurate to say it’s “endangered”. Regardless, you can bolster the blotches as well as the spots by reaching out to the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Conservation Centre.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
“Acinonyx jubatus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Africa Geographic Editorial. 2013. “Two king cheetah cubs are born“. Africa Geographic.
Bottriell, Lena Godsall. 1987. “King Cheetah: The Story of the Quest“. E.J. Brill.
Bradford, Alina. 2014. “Cheetahs: Facts, pictures and habitat“. LiveScience.
CBS Miami. 2014. “Zoo mourns loss of legendary king cheetah“. Miami.CBSlocal.com.
“Cheetah“. No date. Siyabona Africa.
“Cheetah Facts“. 2016. Big Cat Rescue.
Conger, Krista. 2012. “How the cheetah got its stripes: A genetic tale by Stanford researchers“. Stanford Medicine.
Heuvelmans, Bernard. 1995. “On the track of unknown animals“. Routledge.
Jaroš, Filip. 2012. “The ecological and ethological significance of felid coat patterns (Felidae)“. PhD Thesis, Charles University in Prague.
“King Cheetah“. No date. Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.
Pocock, R.I. 1927. “Description of a new species of cheetah“. Journal of Zoology. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1096-3642.1927.tb02258.x
Sunquist, Mel, and Sunquist, Fiona. 2002. “Wild cats of the world“. University of Chicago Press.
Van Aarde, R.J. and Van Dyk, Ann. 1986. “Inheritance of the king coat colour pattern in cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus“. Journal of Zoology 209:573-578.
Featured image credit: “King cheetah from South Africa, rare animal” by BirdImages