12 Reasons the Leopard and Cheetah are more Different than You Think

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It has been said that the only difference between a cheetah and a leopard is speed, size and the tear line that is missing on the leopard. So the other day I decided to scrutinize these two animals closely (of course they were behind cages and books!) and realised to my surprise that they actually have more additional differences between them than the 3 common ones we know of.

First-off, they do not even belong to the same species (that one I know you knew)! But did you know that the cheetah is taller and slender while the leopard is more compact and muscular? The cheetah is built for speed whereas the leopard needs more muscle power to drag its prey up into trees.

Because of their need for rapid breathing during a fast-paced attack, cheetahs have smaller teeth and jaws to make room for a larger nasal cavity. Leopards on the other hand have strong teeth and jaws that crash through thick bones. Because of their small teeth, cheetahs lack the ability to crash large bones.

Leopards live a solitary, shy life, making them one of the most rare animals of the Big Five to spot while cheetahs, who are not considered part of the Big Five (read our BIG FIVE story), are more social especially among the males who form coalitions that are not gender-sensitive unless during the mating season when the ladies can be allowed in – talk of being crafty and selfish!

Cheetahs possess semi-retractable claws which allow them to get a firmer grip on the ground for speed. The claws of a leopard on the other hand, are retractable, giving them an edge when it comes to the art of climbing trees.

Cheetahs tend to live mainly in savannah grasslands and plains and often like sitting on termite mounds or small hills from where they can scan the horizon for potential prey. Do you recall how Kidogo (Swahili for small) and her two cubs often used to sit on a hill gazing into the captivating golden horizon of the expansive African savannah in the famous Big Cat Diary series by the BBC?

Leopards are perhaps the most widespread wild feline known to man. They inhabit virtually any habitat from the dense woodlands to the savannah, mountains and desert regions.

A leopard’s head is more elongated with dark spots on the muzzle while that of a cheetah is small and well-rounded, with the signature tear marks that run from the inner corner of its eyes to the corner of the mouth and act as reflection absorbers shielding it from the hot African sun during a crucial hunt.

While the cheetah runs after its prey and tackles it from behind to knock it off balance before going for the jugular, the leopard would rather ambush prey from a shorter distance then pounce on its completely unaware victim. Leopards hunt mainly at night while cheetahs prefer to hunt during the day.

As for legs, the cheetah’s are longer to give it that burst of acceleration it requires to catch a meal while those of a leopard are short and muscular for agility and tree-climbing.

When it comes to speed, it is obvious who the winner is. The cheetah is on record as the fastest land mammal in the world clocking speeds of up to 113 Kph. Its long tail acts as a rudder to provide balance as it cuts sharp corners at astonishingly fast speeds. Leopards are not that spectacular on speed although they are known to make 60 Kph over short distances.

Here is another one you probably thought you knew. The spots on cheetahs are small and solid while those on a leopard are grouped in small rings or rosettes on their torso and upper limbs.

Speaking of their voice, did you know that the cheetah chirps and yelps while the Leopard roars and growls? Well, now you know. So these two animals, though seemingly alike at a glance, are as different as night and day on keen observation.

Are there other differences we have left out you know of? Do not shy away from sharing them by way of comments below.

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