We have covered a few “safari myths” on this blog over the last year or so such as whether or not impalas can delay their births and do elephant get drunk on marula fruit? I also dedicated a whole post to busting open multiple myths regarding hyenas.
Today the focus is on Cheetah and one particular myth that has bothered me for sometime which is that cheetah will abandon a hunt midway through to avoid overheating and collapsing. I will be the first to admit that I may have told a few guests over my years of guiding that this was the case but when I couldn’t find any information to back this up I stopped venturing this explanation. That was until I came across an article by National Geographic recently that highlighted the origins of this myth and why it wasn’t true.
Way back in 1973, as reported by National Geographic, there was a study involving two cheetahs that were held in captivity. The study placed them both on treadmills and monitored their sprinting prowess. The evidence gathered from this study was then applied to free-ranging cheetah suggesting that the reason they only had about a 40%-50% hunting success rate in the wild was because they simply got too hot.
However, on the 24th of July 2013 a new study was published suggesting that this was not the case. Robyn Hetem, study leader and a biologist at the University of Witwatersrand, gathered data from four cheetahs that had sensors implanted in them at a rehabilitation facility in Namibia. They were free ranging cheetahs that had to hunt for themselves and her results were very interesting.
Over the course of the study she noticed that body temperatures in the cheetah during the actual chasing of their prey, whether the hunt was successful or not, would stay relatively constant. It was only after the cheetah had stopped running that their body temperature would rise but the interesting part was that their body temperature would rise considerably more after a successful hunt then an unsuccessful hunt.
The researchers, when looking for reasons why this may be the case, thought that because cheetahs rank quite low on the predator hierarchy, the rise in body temperature could be attributed to the stress of having to be alert and constantly on the look out for predators as they try and protect their kill and feed at the same time.
On some occasions the body temperature spikes also happened before the cheetah started feeding, which ruled out a possible explanation that the spike could have been caused by digestion during the feeding process. The results were further substantiated when on one occasion a cheetah, which was not involved in the hunt, arrived at the kill to feed and showed the same spike in body temperature as the individual who had made the kill.
As for the reason as to why cheetahs sometimes abandon a hunt early, no one knows for sure. Perhaps as technology gets used more and more in the conservation of these precious cats more information will come to light and even more myths will be dispelled. Maybe they are just really good at knowing when they won’t be able to close the gap.
What has become increasingly evident to me over the years is the combined power of curiosity and observation. Reading one thing in a field guide and observing another thing in the field happens from time to time because nature is dynamic and never constant. A cheetah at Londolozi may behave differently to a cheetah on the plains of East Africa and the same holds true for all species. The challenge to everyone is to never stop questioning because then you will never stop learning.