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Queen's University expert studying race between cheetahs and their prey

By Claire McNeilly

Published 08/08/2015

A cheetah chasing a steenbok in Africa
A cheetah chasing a steenbok in Africa
Dr Michael Scantlebury

Sleeping in a flimsy tent in the middle of a South African desert wouldn't be everyone's idea of fun.

But it's all in a day's work for researcher Dr Michael Scantlebury from Queen's University, Belfast.

He spent many weeks over the past eight years under the stars in the Kalahari researching cheetahs. Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal in the world, recording speeds touching 80mph.

They can be tamed and in some civilizations in the past were used for hunting.

The study, published in this month's eLife journal, reveals techniques used by predators and prey. Costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, it examined what determines the outcomes of interactions in wild animals and how both predators and prey can best increase their chances of success.

Dr Scantlebury, who is based at the School of Biological Sciences, Institute for Global Food Security, collaborated with experts from across the world on the project.

They looked first at how mass should affect an animal's speed and cornering ability. Although it is recognised that larger animals tend to be able to run faster, the study highlighted how bigger animals have to exert greater forces to turn but have relatively less capacity to provide the necessary force for this than smaller animals.

Professor Rory Wilson, a zoologist, sports science expert Dr Iwan Griffiths from Swansea University, South African researchers Dr Johnny Wilson and Dr Gus Mills, and Dr Scantlebury tested this theory in the wild by equipping nature's fastest land animal, the cheetah, with accelerometers to look at how they dealt with different sized prey.

The tagged cheetahs chased everything from small hares to large wildebeest and ostrich and, true to predictions, were found to turn more often and more sharply when pursuing smaller prey.

Dr Scantlebury said it was the first time anyone has tried to understand the dynamics of being chased.

"This truly shows how both predators and prey are involved in an evolutionary arms race important for each of their own survival - to catch dinner or avoid being eaten," he said.

"Predator chases are governed by fundamental principles, which include not being able to turn abruptly if you are travelling fast, or indeed if you are large."

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