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Not All Speed: Cheetahs Kill in Prey-Specific 'Deadly Tango' of Agility

Sep 05, 2013 12:14 PM EDT

A new study of cheetahs has determined that the cat's unrivaled speed it not the only tactical advantage it has while on the hunt: cheetahs also employ a killing technique equivalent to a deadly tango that is specific to the type of prey they are after.

The study, which was published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, was conducted by an international team of researchers who used GPS and accelerometer data loggers to study the big cats.

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

Scantlebury said that hunting cheetahs will approach their prey at top speed but then slow down and 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," he said, adding that the cats use a two-phase approach to the hunt.

First, hunting cheetahs will use their great speed to match the gait of their prey, but the second phase involves a prey-specific slow-down stage that occurs between five and eight seconds before the end of the chase. Slowing down enable the cheetahs to mimic the turns initiated by the prey as the distance between them closes.

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

Some species of prey, such as ostrich, hares and steenbok will attempt to outmaneuver the cheetah by executing quick changes in direction while being pursued, while other prey, such as wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok, attempt to flat outrun the cats in a straight line.

Scantlebury said it seems as if the cheetahs determine how much power or effort they'll need to put into a chase before it even begins.

As they studied cheetah hunts, the researchers began to notice clear differences in what would become successful kills and getaways. Non-successful hunts seemed to involve less turning toward the end of the chase, the researchers said, adding that the cats seemed to expend more energy during a failed hunt than they did a successful hunt of the same species.

"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."


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