King Cheetah

Large striped C ATof South Africa, once thought to be a separate species of cheetah.

Etymology: After the regal splendor of its coat. Scientific names: Acinonyx rex, proposed by Reginald Pocock in 1927; modified later to A. jubatus var. rex.

Variant names: Mazoe leopard, Nsui-fisi (from the Swahili/Bantu chui-fisi, "leopard-hyena"), Rhodesian cheetah.

Physical description: Like the common cheetah but with a thicker, silky coat. Marked with slightly raised black stripes on the spine and dark blotches on a cream-colored background. A more pronounced mane. Fully ringed tail.

King cheetah variants are found in the litters of normal cheetahs.

Behavior: Nocturnal, as opposed to the traditional cheetah preference for daytime hunting.

Habitat: Forests, whereas the cheetah prefers open country, from desert to dry savanna.

Distribution: Zimbabwe; Botswana; Mozambique; Northern Province, South Africa. There is also a report of a single skin recovered from Burkina Faso in West Africa.

Significant sightings: First brought to scientific attention in 1926 when A. C. Cooper noticed an unusual skin in Harare's Queen Victoria Memorial Library and Museum. Reginald Pocock identified it as a cheetah's but with a vastly different coat pattern. At least twenty-one other skins were obtained through 1974.

The first King cheetah born in captivity was born to normally marked parents in 1981 at the Seaview Game Park in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The DeWildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in North-West Province, South Africa, obtained twelve live King cheetah specimens between 1981 and 1987, three of them cubs born from their breeding program.

Possible explanations:

(1) Now generally seen as a single-locus genetic morph of the common Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Lena Bottriell considers it to be an instance of evolution in the making: the modified, striped coat provides better camouflage as the cheetah adapts to night hunting in dense forests. If the King cheetahs are separated reproductively from the rest of the cheetah population for an appropriate amount of time, they may actually become a distinct species.

(2) By contrast, King cheetahs may represent a genetic throwback to the time when Africa was colder and more forested. Sources: Reginald I. Pocock, "Description of a New Species of Cheetah (Acinonyx rex)," Proceedings of the Zoological Society ofLondon, 1927, pp. 245-251, 257; Daphne M. Hills and Reay H. N. Smithers, "The 'King Cheetah': A Historical Review," Arnoldia Zimbabwe 9, no. 1 (1980): 1-23; Lena Godsall Bottriell, King Cheetah: The Story of the Quest (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987); Karl Shuker, Mystery Cats ofthe World (London: Robert Hale, 1989), pp. 118-122; G. W. Frame, "First Record of the King Cheetah in West Africa," Cat News 17 (1992): 2-3; David Alderton, Wild Cats ofthe World (London: Blandford, 1993), pp. 38-42.

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