December 2, 2013
Lions Are Not A Cheetah Cub’s Worst Enemy After All
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In a recent paper published in the Journal of Zoology, researchers are challenging the theory that big predatory cats are unable to coexist in the same ecosystem. Previously, scientists had thought lions were a cheetah cub’s main predator, and it was believed for this reason big cats cannot cohabitate in conservation areas.
However, the latest research found cubs in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park were seven times more likely to survive there than on the Serengeti Plains and that lions were not found to be the cubs’ main predatory threat.
A past study found only 4.8 percent of the 125 cheetah cubs monitored on the Serengeti Plains survived to adolescence. The theory that cheetah cubs are at high risk from becoming a lion’s prey has impacted conservation strategies as it is believed that protected areas may not be suitable for cheetahs if they cannot coexist.
The researchers visited a series of dens to study the litters of six adult female cheetahs and found that in Kgalagadi 55 percent of litters and 53.6 percent of cubs survived. Lions only accounted for 6.7 percent of mortality cases in this study, compared with the Serengeti Plains where 78.2 percent of cheetah cub deaths were ascribed to lions.
The team says rather than being the norm, the low survival of cheetah cubs reported in the Serengeti Plains may be exceptional. These plains are open landscapes, making cubs more vulnerable to predators than places like Kgalagadi.
There are also big differences in the cheetah’s prey. For example, in the Serengeti, gazelles are migratory which makes them difficult to hunt, but in Kgalagadi the steenbok population is sedentary, providing a constant food source.
"Our study has shown that, contrary to popular belief, cheetah cub mortality may not always be inordinately high, and that lions are not necessarily their major predator," said Dr. Michael Gus Mills. "Cheetahs can coexist successfully in protected areas with other large carnivores."
The researchers concluded in their study that the Serengeti data does not unequivocally prove the dominance of lions as predators of cheetah cubs there.
“We discuss these findings in the context of cheetah conservation, suggesting that further research on coexistence between cheetahs and other carnivores should receive attention and that the high mortality rates of cubs found on the Serengeti Plains may not be as widespread as is commonly believed,” the team wrote. “Furthermore, we recommend that maintaining the link between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning should receive more attention in carnivore conservation.”