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Groundbreaking RVC research shows wild cheetah reaching speeds of up to 58mph during a hunt

13 June 2013

  • Nature coverStudy published in Nature is the first detailed information on the hunting dynamics of the wild cheetah in its natural habitat
  • Researchers recorded some of the highest measured values for acceleration, deceleration and body mass using innovative GPS technology

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College have captured the first detailed information on the hunting dynamics of the wild cheetah in its natural habitat. Using an innovative GPS and motion sensing collar that they designed, Professor Alan Wilson and his team were able to record remarkable speeds of up to 58mph.

The results, from the team at the Royal Veterinary College’s Structure & Motion Laboratory, are published today (13 June 2013) in Nature and are also featured on the journal’s cover.

To date, measurements of cheetah locomotion mechanics have only been made on captive animals chasing a lure in a straight line, with few studies eliciting speeds faster than racing greyhounds. For wild cheetahs, estimates of speed have only ever been made from direct observation or film, in open habitat and during daylight hours.

Cheetah wearing RVC Wildlife Tracking CollarThe team, led by Professor Wilson, developed a tracking collar equipped with a GPS module and electronic motion sensors (accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes) capable of delivering processed position and velocity data and sensitive to the animal’s movements. The collar was powered by a combination of solar cells, rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries.

Collar software monitored the accelerometers to create activity summaries and detect the brief hunting events and adapted collar operation to battery voltages and time of day, meaning that researchers only captured data during a hunt. Overall, researchers recorded data from 367 runs by three female and two male adult cheetahs over 17 months. An episode of feeding after a run indicated hunting success, and was identified in the activity data by consistent, low-magnitude acceleration.

Data revealed that wild cheetah runs started with a period of acceleration, either from stationary or slow movement (presumably stalking) up to high speed. The cheetahs then decelerated and manoeuvred before prey capture. About one-third of runs involved more than one period of sustained acceleration. In successful hunts, there was often a burst of accelerometer data after the speed returned to zero, interpreted as the cheetah subduing the prey – in this case mainly Impala, which made up 75% of their diet.

Cheetah hunting impala
A cheetah wearing a collar hunting impala in northern Botswana (image: K Golabek)

The average run distance was 173m. The longest runs recorded by each cheetah ranged from 407 to 559 m and the mean run frequency was 1.3 times per day, so, even if some hunts were missed, high speed locomotion only accounted for a small fraction of the 6,040-m average daily total distance covered by the cheetahs.

The team was also able to identify factors that make up a successful hunt. Successful hunts involved greater deceleration on average, but there was no significant difference in peak acceleration, distance travelled, number of turns, or total turn angle. This indicates that outcome was determined in the final stages of a hunt rather than hunts being abandoned early to save energy or reduce risk of injury, and the higher deceleration values may reflect actual prey capture.

The greatest acceleration and deceleration values were almost double values published for polo horses and exceeded the accelerations reported for greyhounds at the start of a race. The acceleration power for the cheetahs was four times higher than that achieved by Usain Bolt during his world record 100 metres run, about double that for racing greyhounds and more than three times higher than polo horses in competition.

Grip and manoeuvrability, rather than top speed, were shown to be key to hunting success. Hunts involved considerable manoeuvring, with maximum lateral (centripetal) accelerations often exceeding 13ms-2 at speeds less than 17ms-1 (polo horses achieve 6ms-2).

Professor Alan Wilson, said: “Although the cheetah is recognised as the fastest land animal, very little is known about other aspects of its notable athleticism, particularly when hunting in the wild. Our technology allowed us to capture what to our knowledge is the first detailed locomotor information on the hunting dynamics of a large cursorial predator in its natural habitat and as a result we were able to record some of the highest measured values for lateral and forward acceleration, deceleration and body mass.

“In the future, equivalent data for other wild cursorial species would enhance what we know about natural speed, agility and endurance, and provide detailed information on ranging behaviour in the wild. For example, information on habitat selection by endangered species detailing where animals are commuting, hunting and resting would be informative when attempting to evaluate wildlife-protected areas.”

The cheetahs used in this study were part of a continuing study by Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (www.bpctrust.org) in the Okavango Delta region of Northern Botswana.

See: Dynamics and Energetics of Hunting in the Cheetah for more information

Notes for editors

  • Research Reference: Locomotion dynamics of hunting in wild cheetahs; A. M. Wilson, J. C. Lowe, K. Roskilly, P. E. Hudson, K. A. Golabek & J. W. McNutt (doi:10.1038/nature12295) is published in the journal Nature.
  • The Royal Veterinary Collegeis the UK's first and largest veterinary school and a constituent College of the University of London. In the recent Research Assessment Exercise the RVC ranked as England’s best school in the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science unit of assessment, for institutions whose research is exclusively veterinary related, with 55% of its submitted academics viewed as producing ’world class’ and ’internationally excellent’ research.  The College provides support for veterinary and related professions through its three referral hospitals, diagnostic services and continuing professional development courses.

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