AboutZoos, Since 2008


Chee­tah myth busted, they do not over­heat dur­ing hunt

pub­lished 15 August 2013 | mod­i­fied 28 June 2014

Dr Robyn Hetem and her col­leagues from the Brain Func­tion Research Group at the Uni­ver­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand (Wits) found that chee­tah body tem­per­a­ture did not increase dur­ing the sprint while hunt­ing. Their find­ings have been pub­lished on 24 July in the jour­nal Biol­ogy Let­ters.

Cheetahs runningFor superb ath­letes, chee­tah are sur­pris­ingly poor hunters with up to 60% of hunts end­ing in fail­ure. In a race over 100m, a chee­tah would beat Usain Bolt by 60 meters, and eas­ily could out­sprint any ante­lope. But they often give up the sprint when within easy reach of their prey.

Nearly forty years ago, Har­vard researchers sug­gested that chee­tah aban­don hunts because they over­heat. They ran chee­tah on a tread­mill and found that chee­tah stopped run­ning when their body tem­per­a­ture reached 40.5°C. Extend­ing their find­ing to real hunts, the researchers con­cluded that chee­tah could only sprint so far before get­ting too hot to move. The prob­lem was that the speed that the tread­mill could reach was nowhere near that of a real hunt. Nev­er­the­less, since then peo­ple thought that the incred­i­ble speed chee­tah can develop comes at a price, an over­heated ‘engine’ that makes them aban­don the hunt. This appears now to be a myth.

So what hap­pens in a real hunt? Answer­ing that ques­tion had to wait until researchers could mea­sure body tem­per­a­ture of hunt­ing chee­tahs. Researchers from the Brain Func­tion Research Group at Wits, work­ing with Pro­fes­sor Shane Mal­oney of the Uni­ver­sity of West­ern Aus­tralia, devel­oped the tech­nol­ogy needed.

How do chee­tah reach the speeds that make it the world’s fastest land mam­mal:

“But that wasn’t enough,” said Pro­fes­sor Andrea Fuller, the Group’s Direc­tor. “We needed con­ser­va­tors who were com­mit­ted to advanc­ing chee­tah research.” The Group found those con­ser­va­tors at the AfriCat Foun­da­tion, based at the Okon­jima Nature Reserve in Namibia.

The AfriCat Foun­da­tion runs a chee­tah reha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme to give some of their cap­tive chee­tahs an oppor­tu­nity to return to their nat­ural envi­ron­ment. Although hunt­ing in car­ni­vores is instinc­tive, many of the chee­tahs at AfriCat lack expe­ri­ence due to being orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age. This inex­pe­ri­ence, as well as their con­di­tion­ing to cap­tiv­ity, makes these ani­mals unsuit­able for release on farm­land. The chee­tahs (usu­ally a coali­tion of broth­ers and sis­ter) are fit­ted with radio-​collars before their release into the camp so that their wel­fare and progress can be closely mon­i­tored.

Vet­eri­nar­i­ans equipped six chee­tah with body tem­per­a­ture and activ­ity sen­sors. The researchers observed a num­ber of hunts and their data revealed that, con­trary to ini­tial expec­ta­tions, chee­tah body tem­per­a­ture did not increase dur­ing the sprint.

Mys­te­ri­ously though, chee­tah tem­per­a­tures did rise after the sprint was fin­ished, more so if the hunt had been suc­cess­ful despite the chee­tah sprint­ing just as hard when they got the prey as when they didn’t. What were the chee­tah doing then? Typ­i­cally the chee­tah were rest­ing next to their prey. Because the body tem­per­a­ture rise started before the first mouth­ful, eat­ing could not have caused the mys­te­ri­ous late rise in body temperature.

How beau­ti­ful it looks, shows this ultra slo-​mo video of a chee­tah run­ning:

This video shows the grace and force of a chee­tah run­ning at full speed. Watch the length of the cheetah’s stride (up to 8 metre).

The researchers pro­pose that the stress of guard­ing the prey from more dom­i­nant car­ni­vores, such as leop­ards, may account for the increase in body tem­per­a­ture fol­low­ing suc­cess­ful hunts. Research vet­eri­nar­ian, Dr Leith Meyer, con­firmed that he has seen sim­i­lar increases in ante­lope body tem­per­a­ture when they are stressed.

So chee­tah do aban­don hunts but not because they over­heat, and a the­ory that had been in natural-​history books for nearly forty years is a myth.

(Source: Wits Uni­ver­sity media release, 30.07.2013)

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