The king cheetah is a rare mutation of cheetah characterized by a distinct pelt pattern. It was first noted in Zimbabwe in 1926. In 1927, the naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock declared it a separate species, but reversed this decision in 1939 due to lack of evidence. In 1928, a skin purchased by Lord Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and Abel Chapman considered it to be a color form of the spotted cheetah. Twenty-two such skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live king cheetah was not photographed until 1974 in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Cryptozoologists Paul and Lena Bottriell photographed one during an expedition in 1975. They also managed to obtain stuffed specimens. It appeared larger than a spotted cheetah and its fur had a different texture. There was another wild sighting in 1986—the first in seven years. By 1987, thirty-eight specimens had been recorded, many from pelts.
Its species status was resolved in 1981 when king cheetahs were born at the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa. In May 1981, two spotted sisters gave birth there and each litter contained one king cheetah. The sisters had both mated with a wild-caught male from the Transvaal area (where king cheetahs had been recorded). Further king cheetahs were later born at the Centre. This mutation has been reported in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa’s former Transvaal province.
The king cheetah, once thought to be a separate sub-species, is an African cheetah exhibiting a rare fur pattern mutation. A recessive gene must be inherited from both parents in order for this “blotchy” pattern to appear. This very rare animal has been seen in the wild only 6 times. It has been known to exist in Zimbabwe, Botswana and in the northern part of South Africa’s Transvaal province. The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa specializes in breeding this cat in captivity.
Other color variations
Other rare color morphs included speckles, melanism, albinism and gray coloration. Most were reported in Indian cheetahs, particularly in captive specimens kept for hunting.
The Mughal Emperor of India, Jahangir, recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608. In the memoirs of Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, the Emperor says that in the third year of his reign: Raja Bir Singh Deo brought a white cheetah to show me. Although other sorts of creatures, both birds and beasts have white varieties …. I had never seen a white cheetah. Its spots, which are (usually) black, were of a blue colour, and the whiteness of the body also inclined to blue-ishness. This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Although the spots were formed of black pigment, the less dense pigmentation gives a hazy, grayish effect. As well as Jahangir’s white cheetah at Agra, a report of “incipient albinism” has come from Beaufort West according to Guggisberg.
In a letter to “Nature in East Africa”, HF Stoneham reported a melanistic cheetah (black with ghost markings) in the Trans-Nzoia District of Kenya in 1925. Vesey Fitzgerald saw a melanistic cheetah in Zambia in the company of a spotted cheetah. Red (erythristic) cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background. Cream (isabelline) cheetahs have pale red spots on a pale background. Some desert region cheetahs are unusually pale; probably they are better-camouflaged and therefore better hunters and more likely to breed and pass on their paler coloration. Blue (Maltese or grey) cheetahs have variously been described as white cheetahs with grey-blue spots (chinchilla) or pale grey cheetahs with darker grey spots (Maltese mutation). A cheetah with hardly any spots was shot in Tanzania on 1921 (Pocock), it had only a few spots on the neck and back and these were unusually small.
Woolly cheetahs were reported in the 19th century as a separate species of cheetah that had longer, denser fur. Several specimens were obtained. It may be that creatures were in fact the same species as the present-day cheetah, but with a genetic disposition to long fur. The woolly cheetah has, in any case, vanished.
In 1877, Philip Sclater of the Zoological Society of London wrote of a recent acquisition by the zoo: It presents generally the appearance of a cheetah, but is thicker in the body, and has shorter and stouter limbs, and a much thicker tail. When adult it will probably be considerably larger than the cheetah, and is larger even now than our three specimens of that animal. The fur is much more woolly and dense than in the cheetah, as is particularly noticeable on the ears, mane and tail. Cheetahs have a flexible spine for precise turning and running.
Woolly cheetahs were observed to have thicker bodies and stouter limbs than normal cheetahs, although this may have been a misleading appearance given by the long hair. They had dense, woolly hair especially on the tail and neck where it formed a ruff or mane. The long fur made the normal spotted cheetah pattern indistinct and the animals appeared pale fawn with dark, round blotches.
Long hair in cats is due to recessive genes, so the pertinent gene here may still be present in a few individuals. However, the cheetah gene pool is unusually uniform so the lack of modern longhaired cheetahs means the mutation has probably vanished.
The whole of the body is of a pale isabelline color, rather paler on the belly and lower parts, but covered all over, including the belly, with round dark fulvous blotches. There are no traces of the black spots which are so conspicuous in all of the varieties of the cheetah which I have seen, nor of the characteristic black line between the mouth and eye.
Although described as blotched, a painting of the cheetah depicts it as freckled and the artist mistakenly added “eyeliner” markings which were not present in the actual specimen. In 1878, a second woolly cheetah was reported as a preserved specimen in the South African Museum. Both the London and South African specimens had come from Beaufort West. In 1884, a third skin was obtained from the same area, though this had more distinct spots and was a little smaller. By the late 1880s, the trophy hunters had eliminated the woolly cheetah; from the number and locality of specimens it seems that this variant had evolved very recently (generations rather than millennia); perhaps all those animals (it seems only a handful are known at best) were the offspring of a single couple born around 1875, or maybe one more generation.
In Harmsworth Natural History (1910), R Lydekker wrote of the “hunting leopard” or “chita” (old spelling of “cheetah”) in which he distinguished it from the “normal” cheetah: “The hunting leopard of South Africa has been stated to differ from the Indian animal in its stouter build, thicker tail, and denser and more woolly fur, the longest hairs occurring on the neck, ears, and tail. This woolly hunting leopard was regarded by its describer as a distinct species (Cynaelurus lanius), but it is, at most, only a local race, of which the proper name is C. jubatus guttatus.” In how far this can be taken to imply that the wooly variant continued to be seen after the 1880s is not clear.
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