Cheetahs' Hunting Success Relies More On Agility Than Speed [STUDY]

By iScienceTimes Staff on June 12, 2013 5:13 PM EDT

cheetah
Cheetahs' hunting success is a result not only of their speed, but of their incredible ability to accelerate and maneuver, a new study says. (Photo: Flickr: flickrfavorites)

Any schoolchild knows that cheetahs are blindingly fast, but a new study has determined that it's not so much their speed as it is their agility that accounts for their hunting prowess.

It turns out that cheetahs are such agile, effective runners and hunters not because of their ability to run fast -- which they certainly can -- but because of how quickly they can accelerate and maneuver without losing speed.

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"Capturing prey seems to come down to maneuvering," said Alan Wilson, a professor of locomotive biomechanics in London, who led the study. "It's all the zigzagging, ducking and diving."

In the study, published in Nature, Wilson attached GPS collars with accelerometers to the necks of five wild cheetahs in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Over the course of a year, Wilson tracked the speed and movements of cheetahs in 367 runs. A quarter of these runs resulted in the cheetah capturing its prey.

They found that cheetahs, the fastest land animal, ran at a top speed of 58 mph, which is actually less than the top speed for cheetahs was previously thought to be. (In 1965, a cheetah was recorded at 65 mph.) They also found, somewhat to their surprise, that cheetahs often didn't need to run at top speed in order to capture prey. Wilson said that in most hunts, cheetahs topped out at about 30 mph, as that was all that was necessary in order to capture their prey.

"I suspect that in more open areas like the Serengeti they may go a bit faster," said Wilson. "But most of the chases we recorded in Botswana involved relatively modest speeds. What we did record, however, [were] some of the highest values for acceleration, deceleration, and body-mass ever measured for any terrestrial animal."

Wilson and his team also compared cheetahs' speed and acceleration to Usain Bolt, the Olympian runner.

"Pound for pound a cheetah's acceleration power is about four times that of Usain Bolt during his world-record 100 meters," said Wilson. "And what's more, a cheetah can still accelerate like that even when it is already doing 40 mph, then decelerate nearly as swiftly, turn hard, and sprint in another direction."

Wilson observed cheetahs' muscles producing a power output of 100 watts per kg at their greatest acceleration. In easier to understand terms, that's four times greater than the power produced by Usain Bolt during his record-setting 100-meter sprint.

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