Tracking Study Reveals Amazing Acceleration Of The Cheetah
June 13, 2013

Tracking Study Reveals Amazing Acceleration Of The Cheetah

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Cheetahs have long been known as the fastest land animal on Earth, yet previous measurements of their top speed have only been done on captive populations.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College´s Structure & Motion Laboratory have for the first time captured detailed information not only about top speed of these felines, but overall hunting dynamics of cheetahs in the wild. The study is published in the current issue of Nature.

Using innovative GPS-based motion sensing collars designed in the RVC lab, Professor Alan Wilson and colleagues were able to measure remarkable speeds of up to 58 mph, more than twice as fast as the fastest human on the planet, Usain Bolt.

In the wild, speed estimates were previously estimated based on direct observation and film, and only in open habitat and during daylight hours. Also, even the most-cited top speed for cheetahs comes from just three measured runs by the same cheetah in 1965, chasing a lure in a straight line.

Before testing cheetahs in the wild, the team needed to be sure the advanced tracking collars could hold up in the animals´ natural habitat for more than a year. So the team used trained cheetahs at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in South Africa to test the equipment. Once those tests proved reliable, it was time to move to wild populations.

With the new solar-operated collars, the research team was able to collect data for 17 months in the wild using cheetahs from the Okavango Delta region in Northern Botswana.

The collars were equipped with GPS technology, accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes capable of offering precise position and velocity data and were sensitive to the movements of the cheetahs. Overall, the team recorded data from 367 runs by three female and two male adults over the study period.

Most of the high speed data collected coincided with hunting. The data revealed that wild cheetah runs started with a period of acceleration, either from a stationary or slow-moving position (stalking), working up to high speed. The felines then decelerated and maneuvered before capturing prey. About a third of the runs involved more than one period of sustained acceleration. In successful hunting campaigns, there was often a burst of accelerometer data after speed returned to zero, which was interpreted as the cheetah subduing its prey. The main captures were likely Impalas, which make up 75 percent of the cheetah diet.

Based on overall data, the top recorded speed was 58 mph, with most runs measuring about half that speed. The average run distance was 567 feet, with longest runs ranging from 1,330 to 1,830 feet. Only about 25 percent of the cheetah runs resulted in a successful capture of prey. The data revealed that maneuverability, rather than top speed, was key to successful hunting campaigns. During each day, just a small fraction of the 20,000 feet covered by cheetahs included high speed locomotion.

The data showed that the greatest acceleration and deceleration values for cheetahs were almost double the values published for polo horses and even exceeded the accelerations reported for greyhounds during the start of a race. The acceleration power for cheetahs is also four times greater than that achieved by Olympic runner Usain Bolt during his world record 100 meter run.

“Although the cheetah is recognized as the fastest land animal, very little is known about other aspects of its notable athleticism, particularly when hunting in the wild. Our technology allowed us to capture what to our knowledge is the first detailed locomotor information on the hunting dynamics of a large cursorial predator in its natural habitat and as a result we were able to record some of the highest measured values for lateral and forward acceleration, deceleration and body mass,” said Prof. Alan Wilson.

“In the future, equivalent data for other wild cursorial species would enhance what we know about natural speed, agility and endurance, and provide detailed information on ranging behavior in the wild. For example, information on habitat selection by endangered species detailing where animals are commuting, hunting and resting would be informative when attempting to evaluate wildlife-protected areas,” he concluded.

The researchers now plan to capture the dynamics of predator/prey interactions during a hunt. They will conduct these tests from the air using a high resolution, high speed Red Epic video camera system. The camera system locks on to the collar GPS position and can automatically track the cheetahs. The team believes that by focusing the camera just ahead of the cheetah, they will be able to track the prey and watch how it maneuvers to escape and how the cheetah anticipates and responds to the prey´s movements.

The team will also conduct another study, called LOCATE, which will examine how the terrain affects hunting practices of large carnivores.

Also, the team plans to investigate the properties of cheetah muscle to determine how they generate such massive muscle power. They believe this will allow them to link muscle energetics to animal performance.

The research for the cheetah locomotion study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The research was carried out with the help of the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT).