This Is the King Cheetah

King Cheetah. Photo by Olga Ernst, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cheetahs are well-known as the fastest land animal on Earth, and they are also well-known for their beautiful yellow fur and black spots. But have you ever seen a cheetah that looks like this?

At first glance, this cheetah appears more like an overgrown ocelot or jaguar; yet, despite its unusual fur pattern, it’s still very much a cheetah. Known as a “king cheetah”, this particular cheetah color morph is very rare in the wild, and they are generally only seen in captivity.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, king cheetahs are so rare and bizarre that, when British naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock first encountered a king cheetah in 1927, he declared it a separate species. However, due to a lack of evidence to support his claim, he reversed his conclusion in 1939.

In reality, the king cheetah’s peculiar spots and stripes are caused by a single recessive gene, rather than divergence from other cheetahs. This is no different from two dark-haired parents with recessive genes for blonde hair giving birth to a child with blonde hair.

Thus, the “king cheetah” is merely an African cheetah with a funky fur pattern, although that doesn’t make it less fascinating.

Watch footage of a king cheetah on the prowl below:

The particular gene responsible for the king cheetah’s departure from the conventional spotted cheetah coat is known as ‘Taqpep’. According to a study published in 2012, Taqpep is a ubiquitous gene across the mammalian kingdom, and mutations in this gene can cause variations in an animal’s coat color and pattern.

King Cheetah. Photo by Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0.

The king cheetah’s unique coat consists of large, blotchy spots that blend into elegant whirls and dark stripes running along its back. Despite the marked difference in appearance, king cheetahs share fundamental traits with their spotted counterparts. Their build, hunting techniques, diet, and social behaviors are all characteristic of cheetahs, underscoring that their difference lies merely in their stunning, unconventional coat.

However, like all cheetahs, the kings face grave threats from habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and illegal wildlife trade. Their extraordinary fur pattern, while aesthetically captivating, unfortunately makes them a more attractive target for poachers.