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Ngorongoro: A Cheetah Speedway

Grade Level: 6-9

Estimated Time
Lesson Objectives
Extension Activities
Assessment Recommendations
Related National Standards

Estimated Time
Two class periods. One period to view selected Ngorongoro video clips, introduce cheetahs and talk about big cats in general. One class period to stage The Cheetah Chase Challenge a mathematical predator vs. prey race.

Lesson Objectives
  1. Students learn the scientific classification for cats, family Felidae within the order Carnivora, meaning meat-eating mammals.
  2. Students learn general cat physical attributes and hunting behavior.
  3. Students learn how the cheetah's physiology differs from the other big cats.
  4. Students learn how the cheetah's body is adapted for running fast.
  5. Students learn about the cheetah's hunting behavior and style of killing prey.
  6. Students learn about interactions within cheetah society.
  7. Students learn why cheetahs are threatened with extinction.
  8. Students learn about cheetah conservation efforts.
  9. Students participate in The Cheetah Chase Challenge, a predator vs. prey race.
  10. Students use a mathematical formula to solve for the number of strides and in how many seconds it takes for a cheetah to reach its prey.
  11. Students write in their journals about their Cheetah Chase Challenge experience.
  12. Students participate in a party for the King Cheetah (optional).
Its sleek lines and graceful design hearken back to Old World craftsmanship and careful attention to detail. With a handling ability that is unsurpassed in terms of its maneuverability around tight turns and acceleration capabilities that propel it from 0 to 70 mph in seconds the cheetah, the animal and not a new car, really is the "hot rod" of Ngorongoro.

The word cheetah comes from the Hindi language and means "spotted one." With its solid black spots set against yellow or tan fur and lightening speed the cheetah is unique among the big cats.

Cheetahs, one of the big cats, belong to the family Felidae within the order Carnivora, meat-eating mammals. Cats have changed little since their cat-like ancestors first appeared 30 million years ago. Like all mammals, including humans, cats have hair and nurse their live born offspring. All cats are hunters and have the uncanny ability to move silently and gracefully. Other physical attributes that make cats efficient hunters include large forward-facing eyes, excellent hearing, sharp teeth, strong limbs, and sharp claws for catching prey. Most cats also have long tails and spotted or stripped fur that help them hide from their prey. The vast majority of the big cats are solitary hunters that usually hunt at dawn or dusk and attack their prey by ambush using grasping limbs, and sharp claws and teeth to kill. For more cat information go to this site:

Although they are in the cat family cheetahs evolved earlier than other big cats. Cheetahs originated about 4 million years ago. Fossil records place cheetahs in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa until roughly 10,000 years ago the end of the last Ice Age. Because they evolved earlier cheetah physiology differs from that of the other big cats. Cheetah claws do not retract like its big cat cousins. This enables the cheetah to get traction during its high-speed prey chases. Cheetah's cannot growl or roar because they do posses the necessary vocal structure. Instead cheetahs either hiss or emit a bird-like chirp, which may help them by allowing them to mimic the chirp of some birds, possibly so that they can make a meal out of the unsuspecting bird.

Other aspects of the cheetah's body make it different from the big cats. Cheetahs are built for speed; sometimes reaching speeds as high as 71 mph, as well as maneuverability. Several body adaptations make this possible for the cheetah. Its small head offers little wind resistance. Small collarbones, vertical shoulder blades, and long thin legs help to lengthen the cheetah's stride. A spring-like spine works in tandem with the back legs to provide added reach with each step. Tire-like paws and extended claws provide superb traction for the cheetah. Its long tail may help the cheetah maintain its balance while making hairpin turns chasing prey. Last, the cheetah's large nostrils and lungs allow for quick air intake; while a large liver, heart and adrenals also assist in providing an accelerated physical response. Check out for more cheetah information.

All of these body adaptations enable the cheetah to chase its prey 3.4 miles at an average speed of 45 mph before putting on that final burst of speed lasting anywhere from to 20 seconds to one minute. Talk about being gone or perhaps done in 60 seconds! The other big cats chase their prey for only a few hundred meters before they give up and seek another target.

The cheetah's hunting behavior and style of killing prey differ from other big cats. Most cats are nocturnal predators that ambush their prey. Cheetahs hunt in the early morning and late afternoon. Standing on a high perch and scanning their territory with eyes that contain an elongated-shaped retinal fovea, providing a sharply focused wide-angle view, and black streaks underneath that may function like sunglasses to reduce sun glare the cheetah spots its prey and begins to stalk it. As it comes within 50 yards of its victim the cheetah quickly accelerates to full speed to surprise its victim in a blinding rush. The cheetah then uses its hind claw to trip its victim. Once the victim stumbles, the cheetah closes its jaws around its victim's windpipe to suffocate it. As a hunter the cheetah is only successful 50 percent of the time. Even after a successful hunt and kill the cheetah must eat quickly. Every meal is "fast food" for a cheetah hunter. If it is challenged by another predator, such as a lion or hyena, the cheetah built for speed and not for offense will give up its fresh kill rather than fight and risk injuring a leg that would make it unable to chase down a future meal. Check out for more about cheetah hunting behavior.

Within cheetah society males and females only interact to mate. Female cheetahs hunt and live alone, except when raising their cubs, usually within the same territory of their mother. Male cheetahs hunt and live with their brothers, two to three per group, establishing their territory far away from their parent and overlapping several female territories. By hunting and living together cheetah brothers ensure their survival by being able to successfully down more and larger prey, and that one of them at least will mate and continue the family bloodline. For more on cheetah society and other interesting cheetah facts go to

Like the other big cats cheetahs are also threatened with extinction. Over the last 100 years the cheetah's distribution has greatly diminished. Once found as far east as India and as far south as the southern tip of Africa, the cheetah is now confined to sub-Saharan Africa and a small population in Iran. Cheetahs and other big cats are threatened by loss of habitat and prey, and to human development and deforestation. Illegal hunting and the trafficking of big cat pelts and other body parts also threaten the cheetah with extinction. Last, cheetahs are threatened with extinction because of low genetic variability due to inbreeding that causes them to be less resistant to disease.

Cheetah preservation programs are occurring. Zoos are developing captive breeding programs, and conservation organizations are working to prevent extinction from reaching them remaining cheetah population. Only time and serious conservation efforts will ultimately determine whether or not the cheetah beats the race against extinction.

  1. Several distance wheels that measure in meter increments preferably (Commonly found at hardware stores.)
  2. Quarters or half-dollar coins for half of the class
  3. Placement markers for half of the class
  4. School field or other large grassy area
  5. Pens/Pencils
  6. Composition journals
Procedure (Day One)
  1. Divide your students into groups of four.
  2. Tell all groups to brainstorm what they know about cheetahs and cats in general, and to record their responses.
  3. Have a spokesperson from each group tell the class the results of their group's brainstorming session.
  4. Write their responses on the board. You may want to organize their responses into categories depending upon the variety and number of responses that you receive.
  5. Show Ngorongoro video clips on cheetahs:
    (16:00-21:00) - This segment highlights two cheetah siblings hunting, chasing, and downing an adult gazelle and a fawn.
    (43:00-45:00) - This segment highlights a cheetah hunting, chasing, and downing a wildebeest calf only to lose it to a scavenging hyena.
    (45:00-49:00) - This segment highlights lions, another type of big cat, hunting, ambushing, and killing an adult wildebeest and a calf.
    (50:00-51:00) - This segment highlights the precarious future survival of lions and other big cats as they become more susceptible to disease due to inbreeding.

  6. Using their brainstorming responses and the video clips as springboards, tell your students to take notes in their journals as you fill in the knowledge gaps by presenting more background on cheetahs and big cats in general. (For minimum assessment purposes your students should record in their journals four or more body adaptations that enable the cheetah to run so fast and two or more facts about cheetah society.)
  7. End presentation with an announcement about tomorrow's activity, The Cheetah Chase Challenge.
  8. Remind students to wear their running shoes to class tomorrow.
Procedure (Day Two)
  1. Group students into pairs; select one student to be a cheetah and the other to be a gazelle or other type of prey.
  2. Distribute distance wheels, placement markers, and coins to all gazelles...students.
  3. Tell the gazelles to put some distance between them and the cheetahs; making sure that they use the distance wheel to accurately measure their distance and record the number in their journals.
  4. Tell the cheetahs to rest and save their energy because they're going to need it.
  5. Tell each gazelle to shout out their number to their assigned cheetah. The Cheetah Chase Challenge has begun!
  6. Using the formula below each gazelle and cheetah pair must quickly solve for how many strides and in how many seconds it would take for the cheetah to reach the gazelle.

    Then divide the number of strides by 4 (The number of strides that a cheetah makes per second.) = how many seconds it would take for the cheetah to reach its gazelle partner.
  7. After each cheetah figures out the answer he or she should run as fast they can to their gazelle, who be using their watch to time how long it takes for the "human" cheetah to reach them.
  8. Once the cheetah reaches the gazelle, a coin is tossed into the air by the gazelle to determine if he or she was caught by the cheetah. Cheetahs are only 50 percent successful in catching their prey. So, if the coin lands heads up then the prey loses its head. If the coin lands tails up, then the prey "high tails" it away from the cheetah.
  9. The Cheetah Chase Challenge continues until there is only one successful cheetah left.
  10. The successful cheetah would then be honored as the king cheetah at a classroom party to immediately follow the activity (optional).
Extension Activities
For Younger Students
The cheetah has numerous body adaptations that enable it to run so quickly after prey. Yet, what about the cheetah's prey? How has its body adapted to flee from the cheetah? Research some of the more common cheetah prey and find out what body adaptations and or behavioral strategies it uses to flee or avoid an attacking cheetah.

For Older Students
Like other big cats, the cheetah population is dwindling. What is being done to save the cheetah? Research cheetah conservation efforts and strategies throughout the world. How successful have those cheetah conservation efforts and strategies been? Do you have new cheetah conservation suggestions?

The illegal market for cheetah and other big cat pelts and other body parts further threatens cheetahs and other big cats with extinction. Research why this illegal market persists and brainstorm new strategies to save cheetahs and other big cats from poachers.

Assessment Recommendations
  1. Evaluate your students on their level of participation during the activity.
  2. Evaluate the writing and content of your students' journal entries for this lesson and activity. Pay special attention to their cheetah stride and time calculations.

PBS Online Sites:

Kratts Creatures: Brief Facts

The Living Edens: Etosha

Nature: Cheetahs in a Hot Spot

Nature: Serengeti Stories

Scientific American Frontiers: Going to Extremes - Ultimate Speed

Other Online Sites:

Cheetah Spot

Environmental News Network - Factoids: Cheetah

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Oklahoma City Zoo - Live Images of Cheetahs

Travel Channel - Africa - Tanzania

Microsoft, et al., "Encarta '96 Encyclopedia," Microsoft Corporation, 1996

Related National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national content standards found at

Understands and applies basic and advanced properties of the concepts of measurement.
        Understands the basin concept of rate as measure (e.g., miles per hour).
Solves problems involving units of measurement can converts answers to a larger or smaller unit within the same system (i.e., standard or metric).
Understands formulas for finding measures (e.g., area, volume, and surface area).
Understands the general nature and uses of mathematics.

Understands the diversity and unity that characterize life.
        Knows that animals and plants have a great variety of body plans and internal structures that serve specific functions for survival (e.g., digestive structures in vertebrates, invertebrates, unicellular organisms, and plants).
Understands the basic concept of evolution of a species.
        Knows basic ideas related to biological evolution (e.g., diversity of species is developed through gradual processes over many generations; biological adaptations, such as changes in structure, behavior, or physiology, allow some species to enhance their reproductive success for survival in a particular environment).
        Understands the conception of extinction and its importance in biological evolution (e.g., when the environment changes, the adaptive characteristics of some species are insufficient to allow their survival; extinction is common; most of the species that have lived on Earth no longer exist).

and the following national science content standards found at

Develop an understanding of structure and function in living systems.
Develop an understanding of regulation and behavior.
Develop an understanding of populations and ecosystems.
Develop an understanding of diversity and adaptations of organisms.

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