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Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Until the end of the last Ice Age, which was roughly 10,000 years ago, cheetahs roamed throughout North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. In fact, cheetahs are the oldest of the big cats, dating back nearly four million years. Today, due to climatic changes, the expansion of humans, and illegal hunting, the ever-shrinking range of the cheetah is limited to portions of the African continent.

Cheetahs for employ various hunting strategies, depending on the terrain and the prey. Though renowned for its speed -- the world's fastest land animal, it can reach an unbelievable 70 mph -- the cheetah can't sustain that pace for more than a football field without overheating and running out of breath. Usually, the cheetah hits a mere 40 mph during the typical chase, and will try to get within about 50 yards of its prey before shifting into high gear. The cheetah's speed does have a downside, however. During a chase, if its prey sharply changes direction, the cheetah's speed prevents it from turning as sharply. If the prey successfully changes direction three or four times, the cheetah is usually too winded to keep up the pursuit.

Did you know? A fully fed cheetah can fast up to five days before it has to kill again.

Serval (Felis serval)

In Ethiopia, it's known as the aner; in Malawi, the njuzi; in the Zulu nation, the ingwenkala. The English name "serval" comes from the Portuguese for the European lynx, "lobo-cerval." No matter what one calls it, the serval is one of the more unusual inhabitants of Ngorongoro, especially since it's so familiar looking. Aside from its oversized ears and thin frame, the serval resembles a domestic cat.

Like a house cat, the serval is a predator, but in the wilds of Ngorongoro, it falls to the middle of the food chain. As a result, the serval has evolved incredibly acute hearing, its ears allowing it to pick up both prey and predators with remarkable accuracy. Servals have also developed physical abilities that far surpass those of house cats. Nothing provides more evidence of this than the serval's diet, which includes swamp rats, mice, birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and insects.

Though you might catch it out and about in the early morning or late afternoon, the serval is predominantly nocturnal. Usually, a serval will hunt alone, but mother servals have been observed hunting with their young in tow, suggesting that the juveniles spend a long time at home before heading out on their own.

Did you know? A young male serval was once observed rushing into a flock of flamingos, where it succeeded in killing one of the larger birds.

Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)

If you were to say that a wildebeest looks like a large antelope, you'd be right, because that's exactly what it is. The wildebeest isn't going to win any beauty contests in the near future; its long face, cow-like horns, and shaggy mane combine for one of the stranger appearances in the animal kingdom. Imagine herds of roaming wildebeests, and you've got one of the stranger sights in Ngorongoro.

Most of the time, the wildebeest spends its time eating, drinking and making merry. Eating consists of grazing on grasses, but when grass reserves run low, the wildebeest happily opts for the leaves of low-hanging trees. Herds are composed of small groups of females and their calves, and it's not uncommon for herds to overlap. Males, on the other hand, leave the herd when they're about a year old, and join what scientists refer to as "bachelor groups" of males. When they've matured completely, males go off on their own, marking off territory.

Did you know? Wildebeests come in different colors, ranging from black to blue. (It's rumored that a red wildebeest is due out in the near future.)

Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos t. tracheliotus)

The lappet-faced vulture makes the wildebeest look like a beauty queen. Its featherless head looks old and haggard, an effect only amplified by the hanging skin flaps, or lappets, that give the vulture its name. The lappet is rather large, sometimes reaching nearly four feet in size, and is an ominous sight, with black feathering striped with white. Other vultures find the approach of lappet disconcerting, since the bird is the largest of the vultures in Ngorongoro, and will drive off any competitors.

As do other vultures, the lappet feeds on animal carcasses, dining on skin, ligaments, and small bones. The lappet is no dummy; when wildebeests abound, the bird will follow herds, awaiting the inevitable hunting of predators, and the resulting feasts. When it isn't eating, the lappet spends its time in trees, where it usually nests among large groups of birds.

Did you know? The lappet-faced vulture is usually silent, but when feeding, it growls, yelps and grunts.

Thomson's Gazelle (Gazella thomsonii)

Any visitor to Ngorongoro who sees a gazelle is probably looking at a Thomson's gazelle, as it's among the most abundant gazelle species. They're not particularly large animals, standing between two to three feet tall, with males bigger than females. In addition to their size, males and females can be distinguished by the size and shape of their horns. Males' horns are s-shaped, sometimes ringed, while females' are shorter, straight, and oftentimes broken or deformed.

An abundant species needs an abundant food supply, which is why Thomson's gazelles feed mostly on grasses. Given a choice, the gazelles opt for greener grass, but will eat smaller vegetation if necessary. Thomson's gazelles range in herds of nearly 200 animals, but during times of migration, they comprise a stirring sight, with literally thousands of animals travelling together. When they run from place to place, Thomson's gazelles use a unique, stiff-legged bounce known as pronking. Pronking is especially useful during times of alarm, when a predator is in hot pursuit. The gazelle's ability to change direction quickly while pronking can be the difference between escape and death.

Did you know? Male Thomson's gazelle's are extremely territorial, and will fight viciously to mark their territory and court females.

Burchell's or Plains Zebra (Equus burchellii)

How can you tell one zebra from another? From its stripes. In its own way, a zebra's stripes are like a person's fingerprints. While to the lay person, all zebras look essentially the same, no two zebras have the same stripe pattern. In fact, zebra stripes vary according to herd and subspecies. Near the equator, zebras have much bolder, widely spread stripes, while in other geographic areas, they may lack stripes on most of their bodies. Scientists speculate about the function of a zebra's stripes, but while theories about camouflage exist, none have been proven.

A zebra is a form of wild horse, and as such, exhibits many of the same behaviors of horses everywhere. Your average zebra is about four feet high at the shoulder, and while females are often the same size as males, males have noticeably thicker necks. Like domesticated horses, zebras feed by grazing. Scientists have catalogued more than 50 grass species that zebras will eat. When there is a lack of grasses, zebras will also eat other plants, such as herbs or leaves.

Zebras are social animals, and live in family groups containing a stallion, one to several mares, and their offspring. On occasion, some stallions -- "bachelors" -- will live off on their own. Often, family groups will congregate around water or grazing areas in large herds. Male zebras can be extremely territorial, both to bachelor zebras looking to mate and to predators. Scientists have observed zebras killing pursuing predators, such as hyenas, with a single kick.

Did you know? Newborn zebras are able to stand on their own within 15 minutes of birth.

Leopard (Panthera pardus)

It's easy to confuse the leopard with the cheetah, since the two big cats are both peppered with spots. How can you tell them apart? For one thing, leopards are much bigger than cheetahs. In fact, the leopard's great size and muscularity directly result in a distinction: Leopards are much slower than cheetahs. But what the leopard lacks in speed, it makes up for in power. Leopards are strong -- so strong, in fact, that they will carry full-grown antelopes or even young giraffes high into trees to prevent other predators from eating them.

Generally, leopards do their hunting at night. However, they will sometimes attack during the daytime hours if the right opportunity presents itself. Prey varies depending on the region, but leopards prefer to eat small to medium-sized, plant-eating mammals, such as wildebeests and gazelles. If bigger animals can't be found, leopards can be extremely resourceful, eating everything from rabbits to insects.

When you think of a big cat, you might imagine it growling. If you imagined a growling leopard, though, you'd be making a mistake. Leopards rarely make noise; usually, they're completely silent. The most common noise a leopard makes is what some describe as a hoarse, rasping cough, which is repeated. Usually, a leopard will make the cough to see if another leopard is nearby; if one is, it typically answers with a cough of its own. The only times a leopard will roar are when it's under stress, or when facing off against a territorial male (which can be stressful).

Did you know? Like zebras and their stripes, no two leopards have the same spots.

Golden Jackal (Canis aureus)

Jackals are wily and opportunistic, and that combination of attributes makes them very effective hunters. More than half of a jackal's diet consists of animal prey, but when rodents, reptiles, birds and even carrion can't be found, jackals will happily eat plants instead. The jackal has developed a sophisticated method for protecting its kills. If other animals arrive at a jackal's prey, the jackal will bury its kill meat and return for it later.

Contrary to popular myth, jackals don't really travel in packs. Jackal groups normally consist of a mating male and female, and their offspring. A jackal family stakes out a one to two square mile area each year, and scouts out that area for food. The male and female jackal will usually hunt together, and the results are productive. On average, hunting pairs are three times more successful than individuals.

Sometimes, younger jackals -- known as "helpers" -- will stay with their parents for a year after reaching sexual maturity. Helper jackals will deliver food to younger jackals while the parents are hunting. The presence of the helpers is what scientists point to for misinformed reports of pack activity.

Did you know? Golden jackals are strictly nocturnal in areas inhabited by humans, but may be partly diurnal elsewhere.

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