Tawny colour coats flecked with dark patterns and slender tails flicking in the thickets – you’ve spotted a big cat, but which one? Is it a leopard or cheetah? Both the leopard and cheetah are the most graceful of all the big cats; and, to the untrained eye, appear to be quite similar. First time safari-goers and those who haven’t delved into the depths of African wildlife often get confused between these two species. If we dissect the differences, you’ll find there are plenty.
So, let’s play spot the difference: Leopards vs Cheetahs
- A cheetah has black tear marks running from its eye down the cheek. A leopard lacks these tear marks. A leopard has a heavy, thick skull and a cheetah’s face is small.
- Both cats have black markings adorning a lighter coat. Although scattered with similar markings, the black markings are very different. A cheetah has evenly distributed black dots and a leopard has rosette patterns on its coat. The rosettes look a bit like a small flower with a lighter colour in the centre.
- Leopards are heavier set, stronger and look more powerful than a cheetah. Cheetah are slender in size and stature.
- Leopards have a slight yellow tinge to their coats whereas a cheetah’s coat is almost more tan in colour.
- A cheetah has a few dark rings at the end of its tail before the white tuft (which is a “follow me” sign for cubs).
- The cheetah appears softer and fluffier looking. A leopard’s coat is sleek and more glossy in appearance.
- A cheetah has non-retractable claws, which are evident in their tracks. This helps for better traction while chasing prey.
- Cheetah are primarily diurnal species. This means they’ll hunt at first or last light, which is when the air is cooler. A cheetah hunts using vision. They’ll stalk and then use a quick burst of energy to kill their prey swiftly. A leopard stalks, crawls and ambushes their prey in the dead of night.
- Leopards are normally seen lying in drainage lines and draped over branches in trees. Cheetah are often seen on elevated termite mounds and other areas on the ground.
- A leopard will drag it’s kill up a tree while a cheetah prefers open savannahs. A cheetah needs open areas in order to gain speed, which is their strength. A leopard requires thickets for hiding and ambushing.
- A cheetah doesn’t have the physical strength to fight off prey, which is why it relies so heavily on blindsiding its target with speed. The cheetah’s body is slim and built for speed and the leopard has a stocky build with strong legs – for all that crouching down while stalking and ambushing.
- Cheetahs cannot bark like a leopard but they do emit a chirp or a low growl. You may hear a leopard before you notice the mild sounds emerging from a cheetah.
- Cheetah move lightly on their feet, much like a ballerina. Leopards are powerful and graceful but they walk with more “swag”.
- Leopards are more aggressive than the meek cheetah and they live more solitary lives. Cheetah have been known to hunt in coalitions because once the kill has been conducted, they need to catch their breath.
- Cheetah exhibit more social flexibility than leopards.