How Cheetah Really Hunt

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College have captured the first detailed information on the hunting dynamics of the wild cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in its natural habitat. Using an innovative GPS and motion sensing collar they designed, Professor Alan Wilson and his team were able to record remarkable speeds of up to 58mph.

To date, measurements of cheetah locomotion mechanics have only 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.

Wilson’s team developed a tracking collar
equipped with a GPS module and accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes. These sensors recorded precise position and velocity data of the animal’s movements.

Collar software monitored the accelerometers creating activity summaries for each brief hunting event. Overall, researchers recorded data from 367 runs by three female and two male adult cheetahs over 17 months (Figure 1).


Figure 1. A cheetah wearing a GPS collar makes a sharp turn (From Wilson et al, 2013)

Data revealed that wild cheetah runs started with a period of acceleration, either from stationary or slow movement (presumably stalking) up to high speed. The cheetahs then decelerated and maneuvered before prey capture. About one-third of runs involved more than one period of sustained acceleration. In successful hunts, there was often a burst of acceleration after the speed returned to zero, indicating that the cheetah was subduing the prey – in this case mainly Impala, which made up 75% of their diet.

The average run distance was 173m. The longest runs recorded by each cheetah ranged from 407 to 559 m and the mean run frequency was 1.3 times per day, so, even if some hunts were missed, high speed locomotion only accounted for a small fraction of the 6,040-m average daily total distance covered by the cheetahs (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Some of the hunt statistics from the study. a, Top speed, averaged over a stride, reached in each run color-coded for outcome. b, Distance covered in each run. c, Top speed in each run coded for terrain type. d, Peak acceleration and deceleration recorded in each run. (From
Wilson et al. 2013)

The team was also able to identify factors that make up a successful hunt. 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. Rather, 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 likely reflect prey captures.

The acceleration power for the cheetahs was double that for racing greyhounds and more than three times higher than polo horses in competition. Interestingly, grip and maneuverability, rather than top speed, were shown to be key to hunting success. Hunts involved considerable maneuvering, with maximum lateral (centripetal) accelerations often exceeding 13ms
-2 at speeds less than 17ms-1 (polo horses achieve 6ms-2).

According to Professor Alan Wilson, “Although the cheetah is recognized as the fastest land animal, very little is known about other aspects of its notable athleticism, particularly when hunting in the wild. Our technology allowed us to capture what to our knowledge is the first detailed locomotor information on the hunting dynamics of a large cursorial predator in its natural habitat and as a result we were able to record some of the highest measured values for lateral and forward acceleration, deceleration and body mass.

Source: Modified from materials provided by the Royal Veterinary College, London.

Wilson, A. M., J. C. Lowe, K. Roskilly, P. E. Hudson, K. A. Golabek & J. W. McNutt (2013). Locomotion dynamics of hunting in wild cheetahs Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature12295