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Moves Trump Speed for Cheetahs

Cheetahs rarely reach top speed when hunting, but rather rely on rapid acceleration and agility to catch their prey. Sophie Bushwick reports

Cheetahs reign as the fastest land mammals, capable of sprinting at speeds reaching about 65 miles an hour. But when hunting in the wild, the big cats rarely reach top speed. Instead they rely on rapid acceleration and agility to catch their prey. That’s according to a study in the journal Nature. [A. M. Wilson et al., Locomotion dynamics of hunting in wild cheetahs]

Most previous research examined cheetahs running in a straight line or in a controlled habitat. To find out how the big cats move in the wild, researchers put tracking collars on five wild cheetahs in Botswana. Each collar used GPS and other technology to measure each cat’s position, velocity, and acceleration. The collars recorded and uploaded data from 367 hunting runs in a 17-month period.

On these runs, the cheetahs on average topped out at only about half their maximum speed. The slower pace allowed the cats to quickly decelerate and reaccelerate into fast, tight turns—the better to avoid getting faked out by prey. So next time your kitty chases a laser pointer, tell her that maneuverability, not speed, is the key to the kill.

—Sophie Bushwick

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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