Everyone knows that cheetahs are fast, but most of what we know about their speed comes from road tests with semi-tamed beasts. There hasn’t been a good observation of cheetahs sprinting in their natural element -- until now.
A team of scientists led by Royal Veterinary College researcher Alan Wilson fixed radio tracking collars on five wild cheetahs in Botswana. The collars used both GPS technology and internal detectors to measure the big cats’ speed and acceleration to an extremely fine degree, with readings coming in five times per second.
Scientists collected data on the collared specimens from 367 runs -- 25 percent of which ended in a meal for the cheetah. The team’s results, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, show that the cheetah has extraordinary acceleration powers -- the cat can increase its speed by almost 7 miles per hour with a single stride.
"They've arranged to have a low gear so they can accelerate very rapidly up to their top speed," Wilson told BBC.
The fastest cheetah observed by Wilson and his team (nicknamed Ferrari) reached a top speed of 58 miles per hour. That might be slightly lower than the often-quoted 65 miles per hour, which was measured in 1965 by a scientist in Kenya. But the cheetah in that case was running on a firm dirt track in a straight line -- not through vegetation or veering in another direction to pursue a gazelle. In recent years, captive cheetahs tested by Wilson have maxed out at around 40 miles per hour.
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“Most of these animals have been reared in a zoo for many generations and have never run for their dinner,” Wilson told National Geographic. “They’re resting on their evolutionary laurels.”
The wild cheetahs didn’t have to run their fastest most of the time, though. The average speed clocked by the collars was about 33 miles per hour. Speed didn’t seem to be the deciding factor in hunt success either. The cheetah isn’t successful just because it’s fast -- it has maneuverability on its side as well.
How does a cheetah throw itself into gear so quickly? For starters, for all of its skinny looks, the cheetah’s legs are quite heavy for its body size. Both leg and back muscles alone add up to a quarter of its body weight, and they contract at high speeds, according to National Geographic writer Ed Yong. Those thunder thighs make for a powerful stride. Pound for pound, a cheetah’s muscles generate more than three times the power of horses and more than four times the power that Usain Bolt, humanity’s fasest sprinter, can produce.
Below, check out a video from National Geographic that showcases the cheetah’s athletic stride in slow motion. The cheetahs shown here are from the Cincinnati National Zoo:
Source: Wilson et al. “Locomotion dynamics of hunting in wild cheetahs.” Nature 498: 185-189, 12 June 2013.