Social Groupings

In Kenya "untypical" cheetah groups have been described. Cheetah cubs were seen accompanied by two or more adult females or by adult male and female. Years of documentation show that cheetah females live solitary life except for the time when raising cubs and males live solitary or in coalitions. Mothers usually spend 16-18 months with their litters; the age of cub's independence being the timeframe in which cubs hunt for themselves successfully. After separation from the mother littermates stay together for up to six months perfecting their hunting skills. When females reach sexual maturity at approximately the two years of age they leave their brothers and start their solitary life. Males remain together for the rest of their lives in groups called "coalitions", which may consist of up to 5 individuals. If there was a single male in the litter, he usually stays alone after separation from his sister/sisters - but it has occasionally been noted that males from litters raised near each other can also form a coalition.

Two adult females in Moscow Zoo (Russia) with their two litters in 1985

The process of family separation is unknown. What prevent females from staying together for the rest of their lives too? Observations made in captivity may help to understand it.

Behavior observed in Moscow zoo (Russia) show us that in captivity female cheetahs demonstrate higher degrees of social flexibility than the traditional (typical) model of the cheetah social organization suggests. When housed in pairs or groups of three, they were able to form alliances, characteristically similar to male coalitions, but differences include: 1) a male coalition is always based on littermates, while a female coalition can be composed of unrelated females; 2) while males in the coalition compete for female in estrus, all females in coalition come to estrus simultaneously, and breed with male/males; 3) while males do not participate in raring of cubs, females in coalition may raise litters together and adopt cubs (Publication in press).

What environmental conditions support group living in cheetah females? In captivity animals regularly receive food; they are provided with shelter and are protected from natural enemies. Captive cheetah females demonstrate higher levels of sociality than in the wild where enemies (lions, hyenas and leopards) still their prey, kill cubs and even adult cheetahs. Predator conflict is a primary limiting factor to cheetah life expectancy - in the wild they rare reach the age of 11, while in captivity can live for up to 17-19 years.

There are lions, hyenas and leopards in those parts of Kenya where "untypical" cheetah groups have been recorded. Group living may be one of the cheetah's survival strategies. Behavioral observation of the family separation process may help to answer the question.

 

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