Whilst the two animals can look the same at first glance cheetahs and leopards are actually two different cats. Some of the key differences between these two cats has to do with their appearance, habitat as well as size. The other differences are not that obvious, you would have to look closely at the animals in order to tell them apart.
Size And Shape Differences
One of the noticeable differences between cheetahs and leopards is their body size. Cheetahs appear much taller at the shoulder compared to leopards, also cheetahs stand a bit higher above the ground, but they are slender animals. They can weigh up to 72 kg, because a lot of their muscle has been sacrificed to make them streamlined, and to form a body that is built for speed. To become the fastest animal on land reaching up to 120km per hour your body certainly needs to be built a certain way. The cheetah’s body is built up of a flexible spine to allow for quick changes in direction. It has a small, round head, a high chest with a thin stomach, and exposed shoulder blades too.
Leopards on the other hand are regarded as the shortest of the big cats, but they are bulky and more robust compared to cheetahs. Also, leopards can weigh up to 100 kg. They are more muscular cats than cheetahs, and they use their extreme strength to stalk and ambush prey, and to carry it up trees to protect their meal. The strength, size and body shape are one of the major differences between a cheetah and a leopard. This difference between the two cats means that a leopard can chase away any cheetah that tries to approach its territory in the wild and vice versa.
Another noticeable difference between a cheetah and a leopard has to do with the animal’s coat. The coat pattern of these two animals are quite different but you have to know what you are looking for. If you do not look very closely, it may look like the two cats have black spots on a yellow coat, but if you look close enough you will notice that cheetahs have a solid oval spot shape, that is clearly separated from the other spots on the animal’s body. Leopards on the other hand have small, irregular spots that are grouped together in circles to form ‘rosettes’ or rose-like markings. In both cases, the spots are necessary when it comes to camouflaging the animals, and this allows them to get close to their prey before they can strike. Another noticeable difference between a cheetah and a leopard is in their faces. A leopard’s face is covered in a continuation of their rosette pattern, cheetahs on the other hand, are immediately identifiable by a black tear line that runs from the inner corner of their eyes down to the sides of their mouths. There are people that believe that the tear marks can help absorb sunlight and reduce glare. The colour of a cheetah and a leopard’s eyes are also different. Cheetahs have amber eyes, and leopards have bright blue to bright green eyes.
Feet and claws
If you look closely at the feet and claws of leopard you will notice some distinct differences. Leopards have larger front feet that support their large and muscular forequarters to help hoist carcasses up trees. Just like with all cats, leopards have retractable claws, that are used only when necessary, for example, for climbing trees, fighting, or pouncing on prey. When it comes to cheetahs that require explosive speed, large back feet are essential. Cheetahs have larger back feet compared to leopards that help them with their speed and acceleration. Another major difference between the claws of cheetahs and leopards is that cheetahs are not able to retract their claws fully and that gives them extra traction. You can easily see the difference in the two cats’ feet and claws by looking at their tracks.
Both cats can be spotted in overlapping terrain, but the two cats have different hunting behaviours and as such, each one prefers different habitats. You can easily spot a cheetah in large open spaces that allow them to complete a hunt at top speed. Cheetahs are often spotted in wide grasslands and savannas. Leopards, however, hunt by stalking and camouflage, so they like thicker vegetation and more densely covered areas like forests, woodlands, and scrub, where it is much easier for them to hide. Leopards also like spending time in trees compared to cheetahs, plus they like lounging and sleeping in trees all day long, before heading out to hunt at night. Leopard’s also prefer to carry their kill up into a tree to eat at their leisure, safe from the threat of other animals such as hyenas or lions. Although a cheetah can climb trees, they are usually spotted off the ground more often. They can be spotted on fallen trees or termite mounds looking for prey and predators. Cheetahs are not as comfortable in trees as leopards are, plus they are not strong enough to take a kill into a tree.
When it comes to hunting, leopards are nocturnal so they are more active at night. They have a large amount of light-sensitive cells in their eyes to help them detect movement and shape in the dark, plus they have large pupils that help them maximise the amount of light they can absorb. Cheetahs, on the other hand are diurnal, this means that they hunt during the day. Cheetahs can be spotted hunting by the light of a full moon, but leopards can occasionally hunt during the day if there is an opportunity. Leopards also stalk-and-pounce predators. They can spend a long period of time crouching low to the ground, creeping up on prey, and getting closer and closer until they can leap on it to kill it. Cheetahs can chase their prey at high speed and bring it down by tripping it with a swipe at their hind legs instead of leaping on them.
Once a kill has been made cheetahs drag their prey across land to an area that is secluded or has cover. They eat fast because they do not have the strength to fight off large predators such as lions and hyenas that may try to steal their meal. Leopards, on the other hand drag their prey along the ground and up into a tree, where they eat it away from other predators.