Cheetahs reach sexual maturity at around two years of age. By this time, coalitions of male littermates have staked out their own territories, and solitary females have developed expansive "home ranges." Females' home ranges generally overlap with each other, and male coalitions choose an area where the ranges commingle in order to maximize their chances for reproduction. Females choose with which males they will mate. Both male and female cheetahs have multiple partners, with females often giving birth to the cubs of several males in one litter. Cheetahs breed throughout the year.
Mating and Cubs
Male and female cheetahs do not stay together after mating. After a gestation period of 90 to 98 days, the cubs are born. Though the average litter consists of 3 to 5 cubs, as many as 9 are possible. Cubs are born helpless with their eyes closed like domestic cats. But unlike other wild felids, cheetahs are born with their spots, the same markings that they will have as adults. Mothers will move their cubs to a different den every 5 to 6 days so they do not become easy prey to other carnivores. Cubs stay with their mothers for about a year and a half, as they must learn to hunt and to avoid potentially dangerous animals. The mother then leaves the litter, and the cubs stay together for another six months in a sibling group. Females then leave and establish their own home ranges, while males remain with each other, often for the rest of their lives.
The cheetah is an endangered species, in part because of its low fertility rate. Studies on male cheetahs have found very low levels of viable sperm. DNA tests have determined that cheetahs are highly inbred, and researchers theorize that a genetic "bottleneck" happened about 12,000 years ago--a catastrophic event that killed off most of the cheetah population, leaving a much more limited number and forcing interbreeding. This has made cheetahs susceptible to harmful mutations, and the similarity of their immune systems means that they are in serious jeopardy from communicable diseases. While conservationists are still trying to protect wild populations, captive breeding is essential to try to increase genetic diversity and maximize the number of healthy animals.