Dynamics and Energetics of Hunting in the Cheetah
23 July 2012
Professor Alan Wilson,
Professor of Locomotor Biomechanics and leader of the Locomotion (Muscle, Tendon and Biomechanics) Research Group,
has been awarded a BBSRC grant of £600k, to study the dynamics and energetics of hunting in the cheetah, in order to identify what enables cheetahs to sprint so fast.
Professor Alan Wilson explains how he is aiming to do this: "A cheetah can sprint at 65 mph, making it the fastest land animal by far - elite racing greyhounds and racehorses (and zoo cheetahs chasing a lure) only manage 40 mph. Cheetahs are also highly manoeuvrable, allowing them to catch even the most agile of prey. But what is it about the cheetah that enables it to do this? At the moment we simply don't know. To find out, we need to measure the performance of cheetah during hunting in the wild - the only time that peak speed and manoeuvring are achieved. However, whilst cheetahs are believed to hunt almost daily, hunting is hard to observe directly.
Collecting data using special collars
We plan to fit wild cheetah with collars equipped with unique technology that we have developed especially for this type of work. Each collar contains a special high accuracy GPS to pinpoint location and speed along with acceleration sensors, miniature gyroscopes, a compass and a tiny low power computer. The sensors can detect the cheetah's exact footfall pattern - how many strides and when each foot is on the ground. The collars monitor where the cheetah is and what it is doing - resting, walking, and most importantly, hunting and only collects detailed information when the cheetah is moving quickly (logging data up to 300 times per second). From the data, we can reconstruct the exact movement of the cheetah during a hunt.
Filming hunts from the air
We aim to film cheetah hunts from the ground and air using a high resolution high speed video camera on a mount that automatically points at a GPS derived location. The collars tell the mount where to point the camera via a radio link and the camera tracks the cheetah's movement (we actually aim the camera just ahead of the cheetah to see the prey as well). Because the cameras and collars are exactly synchronised in time, we can examine the collar data and video footage of the hunt step by step, including the terrain, obstacles and interaction with the prey. We will use a combination of statistical analysis techniques and computer modelling to examine limits and aids to performance like grip, muscle power requirements, turn initiation and tail movement.
Is cheetah muscle special?
The key to explaining the cheetah's speed and agility may lie in its muscles. Therefore we will study miniscule samples (taken using a fine biopsy needle) to find out whether its properties differ from those of other cats or other elite performance animals such as humans, racehorses or greyhounds.
What will the study find out?
This project will be the first to record such detailed data on wild cheetahs 24 hours a day. As well as enabling us to find out how cheetahs achieve their speed and manoeuvrability, these data will also enable us to explore - in unprecedented detail - cheetah behaviour, home range use and territory size, which is necessary to develop management strategies for the cheetah's long-term survival. The muscle studies may contribute new information for scientists working to develop new treatments for muscle problems in humans and animals. Our results and data collection techniques will provide new tools for scientists working not only on biomechanics, behaviour and ecology, but also those wanting to understand the spread of disease in wild populations. We expect our work also to be of interest to engineers, as understanding the cheetah's design may contribute to the design of lighter weight, faster legged robots and the military too, as the technology and analytical methods could be used for tracking soldiers on the battlefield.
We thank the BBSRC for funding this work."
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