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Study Suggests New Insight into How Cheetahs Hunt Their Prey


This image demonstrates a cheetah photographed during the Queen’s University Belfast-led research, which offers new insight on animals’ hunting tactics. It can be seen that the cheetah has an accelerometer deployed on its neck. *Image source: Johnny Wilson.

This study, published recently in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, was conducted by a group of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, in collaboration with other Institutions in the UK (University of Aberdeen, University of Swansea, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London, University of Oxford), and elsewhere (North Carolina State University, The Lewis Foundation, South African National Parks, Earth and OCEAN Technologies, Kiel, Germany). The research combined traditional observation methods with GPS and accelerometer data loggers deployed on cheetahs to analyze how cheetahs hunt their prey.

The lead researcher Dr. Michael Scantlebury, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, noted:”The more we understand on its physiology and hunting tactics of this charismatic animal, the larger chance we can make sure its continuing existence.”

“Our research revealed that while cheetahs are able to run at exceptionally high speeds, the common sense that they simply outrun the prey doesn’t explain how they are capable of capturing more agile animals. Previous study has highlighted their incredible acceleration and speed as well as their ability to turn after escaping prey. Now we have shown that their hunting tactics are prey-specific.”

 “In another word, now we understand that rather a simple maximum speed chase, cheetahs in fact accelerate first toward their quarry before slowing down to mirror prey-specific escaping tactics. We believe that cheetahs modulate their speed to enable rapid turns in an arms race between predator and prey. Basically, cheetahs apply different chase strategies according to various prey species.”

The study finds out that cheetah (acinonyx jubatus) chases compose of two primary phases, the first an initial rapid acceleration leading to high speed to catch up the prey quickly, followed by a second phase, which is prey-specific slowing period, five to eight seconds before the chase ends, that makes the cheetah be able to match turns instigated by prey as the distance between them closes.

Dr. Scantlebury added:” We discovered that cheetahs first accelerate quickly to get close to the prey but then they have to slow down actively to be capable of matching 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 that cheetah spend in the initial and second phase is different from one prey species to another, with some species like ostriches, steenbok and hares attempting to escape by executing sudden changes in directions, while some other species like gemsbok, wildebeest and springbok try to run fast in a more or less straight line. It seems that the amount of power or effort to be put in a chase is almost decided at the beginning of the chase depending on different prey species.”

Dr. Gus Mills from the Lewis Foundation, South Africa and Oxford University’s WildCRU noted:” Modern technology makes us capable of recording and measuring facets of animal behavior that we have never been able to. However, when we do this, often it is used without the essential backup of simultaneously observing the animals in the wild to support what has been measure. Fortunately, we have been able to do the both.”

Professor Rory Wilson from Swansea University said:” One critical feature about cheetah is that we are not just talking about a dragster that reaches incredible speeds in a straight line. The beast is also able to corner magnificently as well. It can be regarded as a Formula One car, just with a smaller tank.”

The researchers also found that there exist a clear differences between successful hunts and non-successful hunts. Non-successful hunts involve less effort of turning during the end of a chase, possibly because the cheetah realized it was not going to catch up with the prey, and seemed to deploy less energy than those successful hunts of the same species.

Dr. Scantlebury concluded:” One thing is for sure, and that is that our previous concept of cheetah hunts being simple high speed, straight line dashes to catch prey is apparently wrong. Instead, they engage in a more complex duel of speed, acceleration, braking as well as rapid turns with ground rules that vary from one species of prey to another. The exciting new findings are important foundation for ensuring the preservation of these magnificent animals for future studies in this field.”

Image sourceJohnny Wilson