Cheetah's speedy secrets revealed

Cheetahs might be the fastest land animals on Earth, but it’s not their speed that makes them such successful hunters, surprising new research has revealed.

The recent study, published in Nature, found that rapid acceleration and phenomenal agility, not speed itself, were key to the cheetahs’ ability to hunt light-footed prey like impala and gazelles.

The research represents the first full analysis of wild cheetah athleticism, with previous measurements conducted only on captive cheetahs running in a straight line.

Prof Alan Wilson and his team, from the Royal Veterinary College in the UK, designed a cutting-edge collar, complete with GPS and other high-tech instruments, to track the cheetahs’ pursuit of prey.

Using this state-of-the-art technology, they followed the movements of five wild cheetahs in Botswana for more than a year.

An incredible top speed of 93 km/h was recorded, but unexpectedly, the cheetahs rarely got to such an impressive pace, usually only reaching around 50 km/h.

Instead, it was their ability to accelerate faster than a Ferrari, and decelerate sharply before making hairpin turns, that enabled them to manoeuvre and capture their agile prey.

The cheetahs’ paws are well-adapted to these lightning-fast changes in direction and speed, with ridged footpads and ample claws for firmly gripping the ground.

The researchers also noted the cheetahs’ impressive strength.

When speeding up or slowing down, the cheetahs were exerting four times more muscle power than Usain Bolt during his world record 100 m sprint.

Athletic prowess was not the only unexpected outcome of the study – tracking revealed that cheetahs hunt throughout the day and night, not just at dawn.

They are also capable of hunting in a range of habitats, including dense scrub, which was previously thought to be too thick for these feline speed machines.

Prof Wilson and his colleagues are currently using their sophisticated tracking collars on lions and African wild dogs, to collect comparative data.

Such detailed understanding of the hunting habits and behavior of these animals will aid conservation efforts, in particular by allowing better selection of suitable areas for wildlife protection.

This article was written for an undergraduate science communication assignment.