Scientists from Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland, in collaboration with British and U.S. institutions, used GPS and accelerometer data loggers deployed on cheetahs, along with traditional observation methods, to understand more about the cats' hunting prowess.
"Our study found that whilst cheetahs are capable of running at exceptionally high speeds, the common adage that they simply 'outrun' their prey does not explain how they are able to capture more agile animals," Belfast biologist Michael Scantlebury said.
"Previous research has highlighted their incredible speed and acceleration and their ability to turn after escaping prey. We have now shown that hunt tactics are prey-specific."
Cheetah chases comprise two primary phases, the researchers found; a burst of speed to quickly catch up with prey, then a prey-specific slowing period, 5 to 8 seconds before the end of the chase, that enables the cheetah, which can hit 70-75 miles per hour, to match turns instigated by its targeted prey as the distance between them closes.
"In other words, we now know that rather than a simple maximum speed chase, cheetahs first accelerate towards their quarry before slowing down to mirror prey-specific escaping tactics," Scantlebury said.
Some prey species, such as ostriches, hares and steenbok antelope, attempt to escape by executing sudden changes in direction, while other species, such as wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok, attempt to run fast in a more or less straight line, the researchers said.
"One thing is certain, and that is that our previous concept of cheetah hunts being simple high-speed, straight-line dashes to catch prey is clearly wrong," Scantlebury said. "They engage in a complex duel of speed, acceleration, braking and rapid turns with ground rules that vary from prey to prey."