It is well known that cheetahs are the world’s fastest sprinters, but until this study the top speed of wild cheetahs had never been measured.
Most measurements of cheetah locomotion had 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. Even the highly cited 'cheetah top speed' comes from just three measured runs by one individual cheetah in 1965.
We wanted to know whether that single animal really did reveal the cheetah’s top speed and to discover more about the cheetah's other remarkable athletic capabilities.
Measuring peak performance
True peak performance would only be achieved in the wild, and was most likely to be seen during hunting.
But how can you obtain detailed biomechanics data from a sprinting, turning wild carnivore in pursuit of its dinner?
Our answer was to develop innovative tracking collars equipped with high-accuracy GPS and motion sensors to capture every detail of the animal's movements, with long-life and solar rechargeable batteries and remote programming and data upload capabilities.
Developing and testing the collars
Much of the early development work took place in the UK and South Africa. We used a lurcher to test the collars and to carry out validation studies. He was very happy to have many extra runs on the beach during the study.
Once the collars went onto the wild cheetahs in remote northern Botswana, we couldn’t touch them again for a year. We had to be sure the collars would work properly and collect exactly the right data.
In this picture he’s wearing two sets of equipment so we could compare the results when putting the sensors on different parts of the body.
Studying cheetahs in South Africa
Some of the cheetahs at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre are used to people and have been trained to chase a lure to simulate their natural hunting behaviour. This enabled us to make measurements, take high-speed video and test collars.
Studying wild cheetahsThe RVC WildlifeTracking Collars contained high accuracy GPS (to record position on the ground) and very sensitive electronic motion sensors to detect speed, acceleration, deceleration, turning forces and banking angles of the cheetahs, even at the high speeds of hunting. The collars had to be light and small enough not to affect the cheetah’s behaviour or locomotion, robust and long-lasting to withstand life in the African bush, and able to be programmed and updated remotely to avoid disturbing the cheetahs as far as possible.
Working with Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, we put our tracking collars on five wild cheetahs to record every aspect of their locomotor dynamics during hunting, feeding, ranging and playing, day and night, all year round.
While the cheetahs were sedated for collar fitting, we took measurements such as size, weight and limb length and carried out a general health check.
Over a period of 18 months, the dynamics and outcome of 367 hunts were recorded by the collars. This is what we found:
- The top speed recorded for our cheetahs was 58 mph
- Most runs were around half this speed
- The average run distance was 173m.
- Around 25% of the hunts were successful
- Grip and manoeuvrability, rather than top speed, were shown to be key to hunting success.
- The longest runs recorded by each cheetah ranged from 407 to 559 m.
- High speed locomotion only accounted for a small fraction of the 6,040 m average daily total distance covered by the cheetahs.
- Many successful hunts took place in dense scrub and some at night
- 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 the 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.
The full scientific account of the study and the findings, along with the data and the collar technology, have been published in the journal Nature: “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)
See also the press release: Groundbreaking RVC research shows wild cheetah reaching speeds of up to 58mph during a hunt
Next steps in the research
Our plan now is to capture the dynamics of predator/prey interaction during a hunt from the air using a high resolution, high speed Red Epic video camera system on our Groppo Trail research aircraft. The camera system can 'lock on' to the collar GPS position and automatically track the cheetah. By focusing the camera just in front of the cheetah, we will be able to track the prey and look at how it manoeuvres to escape and how the cheetah anticipates and responds to the prey's movements.
In a separate study, LOCATE, we will be examining how the terrain affects hunting in a range of large African carnivores.
We will also investigate the properties of cheetah muscle to find out how they generate such massive muscle power. This will enable us to link muscle energetics to whole animal performance.
This research is funded by BBSRC. We thank the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre and Botswana Predator Conservation Trust for working with us on this project.
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