Cheetahs and Leopards are both part of the “big cat” family. However, the two are very different cats that can be found across Africa and if your lucky can be spotted during a safari trip. There are several physical and behavioral characteristics that differ between a cheetah and a leopard. Yet many people cannot tell them apart. After reading this article you will become an expert in telling the difference between a cheetah and a leopard as well as learn some interesting facts about both that might come in handy at your next trivia game night.
THE FUR COAT:
First, a key difference is in the fur coat of a cheetah and a leopard. It’s all in the spots! In simple terms, cheetahs have spots and leopards have rosettes. The spots on a cheetah are individual solid round or oval black spots all over its body. Leopard however, have a more complex pattern consisting of rosettes which are irregularly shaped spots that are grouped giving it rose-like markings. This pattern on the leopard helps with camouflage while a leopard hunts by simulating grass movement and shadows. Another small difference is the fur coat color between a cheetah and a leopard. A cheetah’s fur is tan in color compared to a leopard which has more of a yellow fur.
THE FACE & HEAD:
Another key variation between a cheetah and a leopard is in the facial markings. Cheetah have black “tear marks” that run down from the inner corner of their eyes down the sides of their nose to their mouth whereas a leopard has no “tear” line. This black line on a cheetah face helps with reflecting the sun glare during the daytime while it is hunting. Basically, a cheetah’s own version of sunglasses. The head shape of a cheetah versus a leopard are also different. A cheetah has a small and well-round head shape whereas a leopard has a more elongated head with dark blackish spots on the muzzle. Also, Cheetah have smaller teeth and jaws with a larger nasal cavity to allow rapid breathing while reaching top speeds versus a leopard which has a stronger jaw and teeth that can break through bones and allow them to drag their prey up trees.
A cheetah and a leopard eye color also differ. A cheetah has more of an amber colored eye as opposed to a leopard which has more of a green-blue colored eye.
SIZE & BODY SHAPE:
The size and body shape of a cheetah also has key distinctions versus a leopard. Leopards are actually the smallest of the cats but is stronger and bulkier than the cheetah. Cheetah are taller and slender in build compared to a leopard which are stronger and bulkier. A cheetah is built for speed and is the fastest land mammal, reaching speeds of up to 113km/h (70mph). Cheetahs can reach top speeds due to their long bodies, thin stomach, high chest, long legs for effective acceleration, and flexible spines to allow for rapid changes in direction when chasing prey. Leopards have short and muscular legs for effective tree-climbing. Leopards also have bigger muscles around the shoulders and neck which allow them to drag their prey up trees. Male cheetah weight around 54kg and female cheetah weight around 43kg. Male leopard weights about 60-70kg and female leopard weight around 30-40kg.
FEET & CLAWS:
Cheetah have big back feet which allow them to accelerate and have explosive speed. Leopard have bigger front feet which allow them to climb up trees and lift their prey away from scavengers. Another key difference between a cheetah and a leopard are their claws. Cheetah have non-retractable claws that allow them to turn at high speeds and rapidly accelerate. Leopard have retractable claws that are necessary for climbing trees or jumping on prey.
Another subtle difference between a cheetah and a leopard can be seen in the tail. Cheetah tails are flatter in shape and is another unique physical characteristic. The flatter tail on a cheetah acts as a rudder and allows a cheetah to steer and stay balance while running at high speeds. Leopard tails are more round in shape and is important in providing balance when climbing up and down trees.
The way cheetahs and leopard hunt for food are completely different. Cheetah use their speed to chase their prey and capture their prey by tripping them with their claws and going after the throat. Leopard prefer to ambush their prey by crouching low to the ground for long periods of time and stalking their prey before they pounce onto their prey. When and where cheetahs and leopard hunt for food also can be different. Cheetahs tend to hunt during the day due to poor night vision whereas leopards hunt at night. Cheetah like to hunt it open spaces allowing them more room to reach top speeds compared to leopards which use their camouflage and tend to hunt in more densely covered places where it is easier to hide.
The cheetah is significantly faster than the leopard. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal in the world. A cheetah can accelerate from 0 to 103km/h in 3 seconds and can reach speed of up to 113km/h (70mph) in short burst. On the other hand, Leopard are not known for their speed, but they can accelerate and reach speeds up to 60km/h (37mph) over short distances.
Cheetah are diurnal and therefore move about more during the day whereas leopards are nocturnal and move more during the night. Cheetah prefer to live in open grasslands, savannas, and dense vegetation to accommodate hunting. Both leopard and cheetah tend to be solitary cats. However, male cheetahs sometimes form coalitions in groups of 2 to 3. Female cheetahs are solitary except while raising her cubs. Mother cheetahs usually will stay in close proximity to her cubs. Female Leopards are also solitary animals but will take care of the newborn teaching them how to hunt before going her separate way.
Cheetah usually live up to 8-10 years in the wild compared to leopards which can live up to 12-17 years. Mating season for cheetah tend to be during the dry season versus leopards that mate all year round. The gestation period for female leopards is around 90-105 days versus female cheetah is around 90-95 days. Cheetah cubs have a lower survival rate compared to leopard cubs. Since cheetah cubs are more susceptible to wildlife predictors especially since the mother may leave her cubs for an extended period while hunting for food. Generally, cheetah give birth to litters of 4-6 cubs versus leopard which give birth to litters of 2-3 cubs at a time.
As you can see, while a cheetah and leopard may look similar to the inexperienced eye, they are in fact completely different animals with unique physical and behavioral characteristics.