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201307Sep11:46

New insight into how Chee­tahs catch their prey, revealed

Infor­ma­tion
pub­lished 07 Sep­tem­ber 2013 | mod­i­fied 26 July 2014
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A new research study has revealed that the chee­tah, the world’s fastest land ani­mal, matches and may even antic­i­pate the escape tac­tics of dif­fer­ent prey when hunt­ing, rather than just rely­ing on its speed and agility, as pre­vi­ously thought.

Cheetahs runningThe study, which has been pub­lished on 4 Sep­tem­ber in the Royal Soci­ety Jour­nal Biol­ogy Let­ters was car­ried out by a research team led by Dr Michael Scant­le­bury from the School of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences at Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast. The research team used GPS and accelerom­e­ter data log­gers deployed on chee­tahs, along with tra­di­tional obser­va­tion methods.

Basi­cally, chee­tahs have clear dif­fer­ent chase strate­gies depend­ing on prey species
Dr Michael Scant­le­bury, School of Bio­log­i­cal Sci­ences, Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast »

Explain­ing the team’s find­ings, he said: “The more we under­stand, about the phys­i­ol­ogy and the hunt­ing tac­tics of this charis­matic ani­mal, the more we are able to ensure its con­tin­u­ing existence”.

“Our study found that whilst chee­tahs are capa­ble of run­ning at excep­tion­ally high speeds, the com­mon adage that they sim­ply ‘out­run’ their prey does not explain how they are able to cap­ture more agile ani­mals. Pre­vi­ous research has high­lighted their incred­i­ble speed and accel­er­a­tion and their abil­ity to turn after escap­ing prey. We have now shown that hunt tac­tics are prey-​specific.”

“In other words, we now know that rather than a sim­ple max­i­mum speed chase, chee­tahs first accel­er­ate towards their quarry before slow­ing down to mir­ror prey-​specific escap­ing tac­tics. We sug­gest that chee­tahs mod­u­late their hunt­ing speed to enable rapid turns, in a predator-​prey arms race, where pace is pit­ted against agility. Basi­cally, chee­tahs have clear dif­fer­ent chase strate­gies depend­ing on prey species.”

The research sug­gests that chee­tah chases com­prise two pri­mary phases, the first an ini­tial rapid accel­er­a­tion result­ing in high speed to quickly catch up with prey, fol­lowed by a sec­ond, which is a prey-​specific slow­ing period, five to eight sec­onds before the end of the chase, that enables the chee­tah to match turns insti­gated by prey as the dis­tance between them closes.

Dr Scant­le­bury added: “We have dis­cov­ered that chee­tahs first accel­er­ate rapidly to get them close to the prey but then have to actively slow down to be able to match prey escape manoeu­vres. It is like a deadly tango between the hunter and the hunted, with one mir­ror­ing the escape tac­tics of the other.”

“The time spent in the ini­tial and sec­ond phase dif­fers accord­ing to prey species, with some species such as ostriches, hares and steen­bok attempt­ing to escape by exe­cut­ing sud­den changes in direc­tion, whilst other species such as wilde­beest, gems­bok and spring­bok attempt to run fast in a more or less straight line. It almost seems as if the amount of power or effort put into a chase is decided at the begin­ning of the chase depend­ing on the prey species.”

Dr Gus Mills, from the Lewis Foun­da­tion, South Africa and Oxford University’s Wild­CRU said: “Mod­ern tech­nol­ogy has given us the oppor­tu­nity to record and mea­sure facets of ani­mal behav­iour we have never been able to do. How­ever, too often this is used with­out the essen­tial backup of simul­ta­ne­ously observ­ing the ani­mals in the wild to val­i­date what is being mea­sured. We have been for­tu­nate to be able to do both.”

Prof Rory Wil­son from Swansea Uni­ver­sity added: “One crit­i­cal fea­ture about the sports machine that is the chee­tah is that we are not just talk­ing about a drag­ster that achieves incred­i­ble speeds in a straight line. This beast has to cor­ner mag­nif­i­cently as well. It’s a For­mula One car, but with a small tank.”

The researchers also found that that there are clear dif­fer­ences between suc­cess­ful and non-​successful hunts. Non-​successful hunts involve less turn­ing at the end of the chase, prob­a­bly as the chee­tah realised it was not going to catch up with the prey, and seemed to involve less energy than suc­cess­ful hunts of the same species.

Dr Scant­le­bury con­cluded: “One thing is cer­tain, and that is that our pre­vi­ous con­cept of chee­tah hunts being sim­ple high speed, straight line dashes to catch prey is clearly wrong. They engage in a com­plex duel of speed, accel­er­a­tion, brak­ing and rapid turns with ground rules that vary from prey to prey. These excit­ing find­ings are an impor­tant foun­da­tion for ensur­ing the preser­va­tion of these mag­nif­i­cent ani­mals and for future stud­ies in this area.”

(Source: Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast press release, 05.09.2013)

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Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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