Cheetahs Adapt To Prey Hunting Strategy
September 5, 2013

Cheetahs Aren’t Just Fast Hunters, They’re Also Adaptable

[ Watch the Video: You Can't Cheat A Cheetah ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Cheetahs are not only the world's fastest land animal, but new research shows that they are actually able to anticipate the escape tactics of their prey.

Researchers attached GPS and accelerometers to cheetahs to gather data about how quickly the cats hunt. In a report in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters, they wrote that cheetahs are able to adapt to the varying escape tactics of different types of prey while hunting.

“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," said lead researcher Dr Michael Scantlebury, from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast.

"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."

The team found that instead of simply a maximum speed chase, cheetahs first accelerate towards their prey before slowing down to mirror escape tactics. The large cats modulate their hunting speed to enable rapid turns in a chase where pace is pitted against agility.

"Basically, cheetahs have clear different chase strategies depending on prey species," Scantlebury said in a statement.

The findings suggest that cheetah chases involve two primary phases, the first of which is an initial rapid acceleration resulting in high speed, followed by a slowing period that enables the cheetah to match the turns and zigzags instigated by prey.

"It is like a deadly tango between the hunter and the hunted, with one mirroring the escape tactics of the other," Scantlebury said. “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."

He said that it seems as though the amount of power or effort put into a chase is determined at the beginning depending on the cheetah's prey. The researchers also found that there are differences between a successful and non-successful hunt. The non-successful hunts involve less turning at the end of the chase, most likely because the cheetah did not adapt its speed accordingly.

“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," Scantlebury concluded. "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.”