The cheetah has an asymmetrical gait, observes Penny Hudson, and when it
gallops "it does different things with either side of its body."Ms. Hudson
is a doctoral student at the Royal Veterinary College
in the UK, where scientists are trying to figure exactly what makes
cheetahs able to run faster than any other known living creature. A BBC news story by Rebecca Morelle
quotes Professor Alan Wilson
head of the structure and motion laboratory at RVC as saying, "The
Cheetah is fascinating because it can run 50% faster than any other
animals we are familiar with, so in terms of understanding what limits
how fast you can run, the cheetah is a wonderful animal to study."
have clocked cheetahs sprinting from 64 to 70miles an hour, and some
authorities think they might be able to move even faster. They are also
incredibly nimble and can accomplish sudden high speed turns
in pursuit of prey.Greyhounds
, the hunting dogs bred for speed, can run about 40 miles an hour. The fastest human
be able to get to about 27 miles an hour. As Ms. Hudson explain in the
BBC story, a greyhound's speed is thought to be limited by how fast
the dog can swing its legs, and human speed is thought to be limited by
leg length. The swiftness of the cheetah is a mystery.
think the cheetah's velocity might be possible because of its flexible
spine, its slender long-legged body, its small round head and powerful
shoulders, and a long tail used for balance. It is also the only cat
that can't retract its claws
, so the claws grip the earth like cleats on a baseball shoe.
Wilson and Ms. Hudson are using high speed photography to capture and
analyze all the movements on both sides of running cheetahs. They are
also using a running track with embedded plates that measure all the
forces moving through their legs as they run. How do they get the
cheetahs to run? They tie chicken bits to fast moving string and the
animals sprint as they would to catch prey in the wild.
Cheetahs are the most endangered
cat in Africa. Scientists estimate there were 100,000 cheetahs in Africa and Asia in 1900, and that population has dwindled
to an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 in Africa. Ironically, their amazing fleetness can have a down side
they often are so exhausted after their high speed exertions that lions
and hyenas can steel their meals right from under their noses before
they have recovered. Unlike most big cats, they hunt in daylight, and
the tear shaped black streaks from their eyes to their mouth may act antiglare mechanisms.
They can get quiet close to prey because their spots camouflage the well in their natural grassy habitats.