3 Reasons Why Cheetahs Climb Trees (And How They Do It)

Cheetah climbing tree

Greyhounds of the desert, perhaps better known as cheetahs, are large cats native to the African continent. These large cats are notably fast and physically unique.

When cheetahs are smaller, younger, and more agile, they use trees as a playground. They also use tree climbing for communication, as well as marking their territory. While marking their territory, cheetahs use the high ground to survey the land for potential prey.

Below, we’re going to discuss whether cheetahs are adept climbers and how they climb, along with discussing exactly what a cheetah is! Let’s get to it!

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Can Cheetahs Climb Trees?

Male cheetah prepares to climb down tree

Funny enough, and unlike other big cats, cheetahs are not natural climbers. 

If you do a quick google search without looking into some research, or even digging through a few search results to compare, you might think cheetahs do not climb trees at all. 

While this is not true, there is some validity because cheetahs do not climb regularly. Their bodies are simply not built with climbing as a priority.

The leopard, for example, is much keener to climb trees. This is likely because it is a jungle cat, while cheetahs originate from the plains of the African continent with fewer trees to climb.

So, in what cases can you find a cheetah climbing a tree?

Why Do Cheetahs Climb Trees?

There are just a few reasons for cheetahs to be climbing in trees, and it is important to know they are not necessarily standard practice for all cheetahs. 

Remember, climbing trees is more of an exception to the rule for these furry felines.

Cheetah Cubs Use Trees As A Playground

When cheetahs are still cubs with smaller bodies and more agility to climb, trees can act as a great location to play. 

There are photographs of mothers and cubs up in trees, even if it may have taken a while to get up into the branches compared to their other big cat relatives. 

Think for a moment about how house cats like to play on ‘cat condos’ and things they can climb. It is the same sort of concept when you see cheetahs, especially young ones, slowly but surely scampering into the trees.

Cheetahs Use Trees For Communication

Information from the Cheetah Conservation Fund tells us this particular instance where it is more common to see cheetahs climbing in trees has some complex meaning behind it.

Trees are not solely a place for cheetahs to play, they also act as a medium for communication.

This is seen most commonly, and pretty recently, in Namibian cheetahs. It was discovered just a few decades ago these trees also seem to act as territorial markers for cheetahs.

The trees cheetahs can climb and use for communication are defined by some physical traits.

Trees with sloped trunks rather than trunks coming up at a 90-degree angle from the ground are better suited for cheetahs to climb. The limbs of these sorts of trees are large and horizontal, providing a great platform for cheetahs to climb around on. 

Let’s dig into how cheetahs specifically use trees to communicate, though, shall we?

Cheetahs Use Trees To Mark Territory

Communication has many forms, but marking one’s territory is a little less complex. 

Cheetahs climb trees to survey the land for prey, but in going into the trees, something else also happens. These big cats will go from play tree to play tree in a given area, leaving their mark as they go.

How do they leave their mark?

Think of other animals, even your pet dog, that mark their territory and you might come up with a few ideas.

Essentially, cheetahs will urinate on the trunk of a tree or leave scat on the branches to stake their claim to an area. 

This communicates with other cheetahs, and perhaps other species altogether, that an individual has already claimed a space.

The reason trees are the chosen location for this action has a lot to do with the environment of the area cheetahs often live in. 

In sandy areas like deserts, shrublands, and open plains, few areas will remain visibly marked up by an animal. 

Sand blows, grass can be stomped and ruffled by many species, and there are few other natural landmarks they can use to claim a place. 

Trees offer a surface softer than rock, higher than some mounds of sand, and they stand out more than some of the other nature surrounding them. 

They are the perfect place for cheetahs to mark their territory. 

How Do Cheetahs Climb Trees?

Two cheetah cubs climb tree on savannah

As we mentioned before, it is not the easiest thing in the world for cheetahs to climb trees.

The body of a cheetah is built specifically for speed, which is what makes it the fastest land animal on earth. They do not just get this superlative by chance, and it means some other abilities like having big teeth to chew and climbing trees, for example, are not the most important to this species. 

Their retractable claws and special pads used to create traction are not only good for running, though. 

While cheetahs may not be natural-born climbers, they can still do so when the conditions are right.

So, how do the smallest of the big cats do it?

Thanks to many physical attributes that make this cat the fastest, the cheetah can climb trees well enough. 

While cheetahs physically can climb trees, they do not do so often. That is why most searches of cheetahs climbing trees will give you pieces saying cheetahs cannot do this activity. 

Cheetahs are not the best climbers, this much is true, but they are certainly physically able.

They Use Their Paw Pads

You know cheetahs have paw pads capable of creating some serious traction but have you thought about all the ways this could benefit these animals?

Cheetahs need this extra traction while running at top speed, but these cats do more than just run. 

As a cheetah is attempting to climb a tree, what might come in handy?

You guessed it- paw pads with an extra bit of grip!

While cheetahs’ paws are not sticky or grippy in how other species’ might be, they have merit of their own. 

The paw pads on a cheetah can help keep some traction as they move their paws along the bark of a tree they are climbing. 

Similar to how humans wear special shoes to go rock climbing and bouldering, cheetahs’ paw pads help create some stability not only as they run but also as they climb trees to mark their territory.

Their Semi-Retractable Claws Help Them Climb

In a similar vein to the paw pads, the retractable claws cheetahs get to sport also offer some help when these big cats go climbing.

Let’s draw another parallel to human sports for a moment. 

Bear with us here.

When rock climbers hit sheets of ice, when mountaineers reach the snowy tops of mountains, when park rangers go on steep solo treks, they all wear shoes with some sort of spike. 

While the semi-retractable claws cheetahs have are uncommon in the overall cat family, this irregularity comes in quite handy- no pun intended.

First, what does semi-retractable mean?

When a cat retracts its claws, it is moving a tendon to contract the claw up and into its paw. This, in most cat species, works to help them keep their claws sharp while maintaining a level of surprise when hunting prey. 

Semi-retractable means the claws cannot go all the way into the paw of the cat. 

So, cheetahs are always walking around with at least a partial claw out ready to grip, tear, or whatever else a claw might do.

This is beneficial in more ways than one. For instance, cheetahs can use their claws at different lengths to grip onto the tree they are climbing. 

This may not be great for the tree if a cheetah digs too deep, but it will undoubtedly help it climb up there.

Now, aside from aspects of physique related to the paw, there is one more big factor that might just determine how successfully a cheetah can climb up a tree. 

This factor is age.

Young Cheetahs Are Better Climbers

For a moment, think of what it was like to be playing in a tree as a kid. You probably felt more limber, a little more courageous, and it was likely easier to wind through the branches than it would be as an adult. 

If you are still a kid- enjoy climbing those trees with ease!!

On a related note (we promise), young cheetahs have an easier time climbing up trees than their older relatives do. 

Thanks to their youthful bodies being small, lightweight, and not yet as strategically built to run ultra-fast, cheetah cubs have an advantage when it comes to climbing.

Little cheetahs can scamper up trees using those padded paws and semi-retractable claws because they have less bodyweight to pull up with them and can more freely move among the branches. 

This is, again, not to say that adult cheetahs don’t climb trees, but their youthful counterparts just do it in a breeze

What Is A Cheetah?

A cheetah is a carnivorous mammal that inhabits broad sections of Africa. 

Its status is vulnerable, which falls in between ‘near threatened’ and ‘endangered’ on a conservation scale. 

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute tell us cheetahs can accelerate from 0 to 45mph in just 2.5 seconds. This fun fact makes cheetahs the fastest land mammal on the planet.

Did you know cheetahs can reach a speed of 60 to 70mph?

Think about driving a car. Not just anywhere, though. Just imagine driving a car on the highway, looking over, and seeing a huge cat running right next to you. 

A cheetah could compete with the speed of a car any day, something we hope to leave up to the imagination for now.

If you are looking for more information on cheetahs and their current day plights, check out Remembering Cheetahs: Remembering Wildlife. It contains photographs from some of the top wildlife photographers in the world, and raises money for charity with each sale.

Identifying A Cheetah

Cheetah close up

Cheetahs have small heads and high set eyes, as well as a black tear mark from the inner corner of the eyes down to the mouth. 

You will see white sections of fur around the cheetah’s eyes and neck, as well as the underside of their belly, while the rest of their body is a yellow or tan color as the base. 

If you did not already know, cheetahs sport black spots all over their bodies, which act as camouflage within the grasses of the savannah and the shadows cast by this environmental feature.

The appearance of a cheetah is important, but the traits they physically use are even more significant when understanding how cheetahs live and survive in the wild.

Physical Traits Of A Cheetah

Cheetahs, as a species, have many highly beneficial physical traits, as well as some superlatives they hold, like the fastest land mammal.

With partially retractable claws and special paw pads, cheetahs have the gift of great traction even as they exponentially speed up from rest to their peak speed of 70mph.

Every part of a cheetah’s physique helps with its speed. From a tail made to help with turning and balancing to a slender body with long legs, speed is a part of this animal’s very nature.

Some traits hinder cheetahs more than help them.

Cheetahs have large lungs and nostrils meant to provide a ton of air to their lungs while running, which means they have much less space for their teeth. 

Since cheetahs have such relatively small teeth, they have to suffocate their prey.

While cheetahs are undoubtedly lethal to their prey, they cannot fight with other predators and are at a disadvantage because of their small teeth.

Where Do Cheetahs Live?

The areas of the African continent cheetahs inhabit include North, Eastern, and Southern Africa.

There is a species of the cheetah native to Iran, but is critically endangered, unfortunately. The Iranian cheetah is one of the most endangered felids in the world.

Countries like Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, and Tanzania are home to most cheetahs thanks to their dry environments with shrublands.

The spots cheetahs sport on their fur helps them blend into these grass and shrublands. The shadows from a direct and harsh amount of sunlight give off a similar black cast within the tan grass.

So, we know now where cheetahs live, but how long do they live?

Lifespan Of A Cheetah

If you have a house cat, you might be ready to predict the lifespan of a cheetah. They are all just cats, right?

Well, not quite. 

Cheetahs actually only live between 8 to 10 years in the wild. Territorial conflicts, a constant pressure to catch and keep prey, and other environmental factors, cause their lifespan to be about ⅔ of a common house cat’s.

In human care, however, cheetahs can live up to 15 years.

This is because captivity removes some of the environmental factors, though the lifespan of this creature is relatively short no matter what way you swing it. 

In this pretty brief life, what is a cheetah’s diet like?

What Do Cheetahs Eat?

Many big cats are nocturnal hunters, giving them the benefit of slinking around in the dark. 

Cheetahs have speed on their side and do not need this leg up. So, you can expect cheetahs to hunt in the early morning hours as well as late afternoon.

The primary food source for cheetahs is animals ranging from small to medium, such as antelope and the young of larger animals like warthogs. 

Game and birds also contribute to a cheetah’s diet, though they are not the majority of the food these animals use to sustain themselves.

Cheetahs have to be on the defensive during mealtimes, as other animals like lions and vultures create competition. 

Even though these big cats are fast, they are often bullied into losing their prey by other predators thanks to their lack of ability to fight. 

Remember the discussion about cheetahs having small teeth? Well, it comes into play here when we consider they are much less likely to win in a fight with a lion.

Cheetahs do not come back to prey once they leave them, so they must eat quickly and efficiently to avoid losing them altogether to a competitor.

That’s It!

Well, that’s pretty much all we have on cheetahs and trees. 

While the big cats can certainly climb trees contrary to other random internet searches you might find, the activity is not their forte. 

Unlike other big cats like lions, leopards, jaguars ,and more, cheetahs often stay on the ground. 

They can run laps around any of their cousins any time though. Cheetahs have their own set of rules to go by. 

Remember, there are 3 reasons a cheetah will climb up in a tree:

  • Play: Young cheetahs love to climb around and play wherever they can. After a while, it is all about the hunt, and these youngsters make use of their ‘free’ time in those early days. 
  • Communication: There are ways animals, including cheetahs, communicate that have nothing to do with sound. Cheetahs climb trees to see prey, to stake a claim, and to convey several other messages. 
  • To Mark Territory: Circling back to communication, cheetahs’ main purpose for climbing trees seems to be marking their territory. It is hard to leave a mark in the constantly blowing sand, and trees offer a great blank slate to stake a claim.

We hope this piece gave you some extra insight into the relationship between cheetahs and trees. 

Until next time, we hope you continue your tree journey and keep learning about all the crazy interactions that make our planet so interesting!

Oh, and (as always), thanks for sticking with us.

References

​​Farhadinia, M. (2004). The last stronghold: cheetah in Iran. Cat News, 40, 11-14.

Marker, L. L., & Dickman, A. J. (2003). Morphology, physical condition, and growth of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus jubatus). Journal of mammalogy, 84(3), 840-850.

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