Inside: Animal research
Published 12/09/2013 | 01:30
The cheetah may be the world's fastest land animal, but, when it's hunting, it doesn't simply run as fast as it can and hope for the best.
Instead, it employs a wide range of tactics to bring down its prey – depending on what species it is chasing.
That's the discovery made by scientists at Queen's University, who tracked cheetah tactics using GPS and accelerometer data-loggers.
They found that the big cat first hurtles towards its prey at breakneck speed, then slows and adopts new tactics specific to the species it is chasing.
Their study has just been published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
One of the researchers likens the cheetah to a Formula One car, but with a small tank. It's not simply a dragster that clocks up incredible speeds in a straight line; it needs to corner magnificently as well.
Lead researcher Dr Michael Scantlebury said: "Our study found that, while 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.
"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 clearly different chase strategies, depending on the prey species."
After accelerating towards their prey, cheetahs then have to slow to match the escape manoeuvres made by their prey – a deadly tango between the hunter and hunted, with one mirroring the moves of the other.
Dr Scantlebury added: "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, while other species, such as wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok, attempt to run fast in a more or less straight line.
"It almost seems as if the amount of power, or effort, put into a chase is decided at the beginning of the chase, depending on the prey 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.
"They engage in a complex duel of speed, acceleration, braking and rapid turns, with ground rules that vary from prey to prey."