Cheetahs – the world’s fastest running land mammals — move like race cars, using a mixture of stealth and speed to win, a new study finds.

Winning for cheetahs means killing desirable prey, with cheetahs zooming forward, making sharp turns and screeching to a stop as needed during a hunt.

“Predator and prey thus pit a fine balance of speed against maneuvering capability in a race for survival,” John Wilson of North Carolina State University’s Department of Biology and colleagues report.

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Wilson and his team monitored speed, position and acceleration of six free-ranging cheetahs at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, southern Africa. To do this, the researchers attached GPS devices and movement monitors to drop-off collars placed on the cheetahs.

These sleek wild cats previously have been clocked at up to 75 miles per hour. Given that cheetahs are the fastest terrestrial animals, you’d think that they would simply try to outrun their intended victims, which might include gazelles, impalas, wildebeests and zebras.

These prey animals don’t move predictably and in a straight line, though.

Wilson and his team determined that cheetah chases usually consist of two phases:

  • an initial burst of acceleration that allows the cheetah to quickly catch up with the victim and:

  • a slowed-down period that allows cheetahs to make sharp, calculated turns as the distance between predator and prey closes in.

Then there’s the final screech to a stop when the whole thing is over with and the cheetah can celebrate over dinner.

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NASCAR competitors on a track follow similar tactics because they have to negotiate sharp turns before putting the pedal to the metal.

The need for speed mixed with a need for flexible movement could set limitations in how fast animals can go.

The researchers compared cheetahs to greyhounds and race horses, and they found that these other speed demons tend to put more emphasis on acceleration, no doubt due to human pressures on them to win.

The researchers concluded, “Much of a cheetah’s pursuit thus appears less of a high-speed rush, and more of a carefully played out life-or-death duel between predator and prey, in which opposing qualities of speed and maneuverability are pitted against each other.”

Image: Gus Mills