The cheetah originated long before the lion, tiger, jaguar, and leopard. In fact, it took 4 million years for it to evolve into a magnificent beast that it is today.
What is common to cheetahs, leopards, and jaguars? All of them sport spotted coats. Now, jaguars are New World felines, meaning they are only found in the Americas, but cheetahs and leopards have a more or less overlapping geographic range. So how do you differentiate between the two?
Difference Between the Cheetah and Leopard
Cheetahs are faster than leopards―or any land animal for that matter. In short bursts, they are known to clock speeds of up to 70 mph, which far exceeds that of leopards at 40 mph. Interestingly, however, the difference between them goes well beyond their speed. Let's take their biological classification for instance.
Even though both, the cheetah and leopard belong to the Felidae family of kingdom Animal, which also boasts of lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopard, clouded leopards, and so on, they are classified into different genera. The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) belongs to genus Acrimony. It is the lone extant member of this genus. On the other hand, the leopard (Panthera pardus) is a member of genus Panthera, which also has the other four big cats―the lion, tiger, jaguar, and the snow leopard to its credit.
There exist at least nine subspecies of the leopard; 'at least' nine because as many as 27 subspecies have been described, but only nine are considered valid. The most popular subspecies among these are the African leopard, Indian leopard, Amur leopard, Javan leopard, and the North Chinese leopard. Similarly, at least six subspecies of cheetah have been described as yet. These include popular ones like the Asiatic cheetah and the Northwest African cheetah.
The closest relative of the cheetah is puma, a feline with striking resemblance to the lion native to North America. The closest relative of the leopard is the tiger and not the snow leopard despite the similarity in their common names.
A closer look, for instance, and you will notice that the cheetah has smaller, fuller spots, while the leopard has relatively large black spots or patches with brown portion in the middle. These patches in the leopard print are known as rosettes. Also, the fur coat of a cheetah is tanned, while that of the leopard is yellow.
Also differentiating cheetahs from leopards and other big cats are their semi-retractable claws, which give them a good grip of the surface when they are in pursuit of their prey, and their inability to roar. Cheetahs purr or yelp instead of roaring. Leopards, on the other hand, can roar, growl, and even grunt.
An adult cheetah can measure around 43 to 59 inches, while an adult leopard is significantly larger measuring up to 65 inches, and that is only the head-and-body length. Add the tail and the length of a cheetah increases by 24 to 33 inches, while that of the leopard increases by 24 to 43 inches.
The cheetah weighs anywhere between 46 to 159 lb. In contrast, the leopard can weigh up to 201 lb. As opposed to the streamlined physique of the cheetah, the leopard has a stockier built. From their size and built, we can infer that the leopard is built for strength, while the cheetah is built for speed.
While the cheetah is found in open biomes like grasslands and semi-deserts, the leopard has no such preference in particular. It is found in a range of habitats, including deserts and woodlands. In fact, trees form an important part of the leopard habitat. An apt tree climber, it kills its prey and climbs the tree with it to make sure that other predators don't steal it. Despite its size, the cheetah cannot climb a tree.
The cheetah is diurnal in nature, which implies that it is active during the day time; mostly preferring to hunt in the early morning or evening. As opposed to this, the leopard is nocturnal, meaning it prefers to hunt at night. Owing to its diurnal nature, hunting style, and natural habitat, the cheetah is largely dependent on its sight, instead of smell, when it comes to hunting. The leopard is a stalk-and-ambush predator which waits for its prey to close in, before attacking it, which is where its nocturnal nature comes handy.
The diet of a cheetah primarily consists of mammals, like gazelles and impalas. In contrast, the diet of a leopard is quite versatile, with the opportunistic animal feeding on a wide variety of prey, ranging from insects to large species of antelopes.
The average lifespan of a cheetah in the wild is 8 to 10 years, while that of the leopard is 12 to 17 years. In captivity, however, these species are known to live considerably longer, with the leopard boasting of an average lifespan of 21 years as opposed to the cheetah's 17 years.
What About Similarities Between the Two?
The similarities between a cheetah and leopard shouldn't really come as a surprise, considering that both of them belong to the same family of kingdom Animalia. Both are carnivores, use their spotted coat for camouflage while hunting, dimorphic (i.e., males are larger than females), and most important of all, have a common ancestry. Not exactly a similarity, but the prevailing confusion as to how many subspecies of the two actually exist, does put them on the same plane.
The most striking similarity between these two, is their geographic range which spans sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. If people tend to confuse a cheetah for leopard and vice verse, it is largely because of the overlapping range of the two.
Then again, one thing common to the cheetah and leopard as well as other wild animals, which is hard to miss, is that they have been at the receiving end of our overzealous nature. With their wild population falling prey to habitat loss and poaching, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has enlisted the cheetah as a Vulnerable Species and leopard as a Near Threatened species. That again gives a wrong picture that the situation is not as bad as we think. The fact though, is that the Persian leopard and Sri Lankan leopard are endangered, while the Javan leopard, Arabian leopard, Amur leopard, Asiatic cheetah, and Northwest African cheetah are critically endangered.