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They Can Run and They Can Hide But Cheetahs Are Still Endangered

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 09, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
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 (RVC) 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."

Observers 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 might 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.

Scientists 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.

Professor 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.

Tags:  adaptive  buscell  complexity matters  nature  science 

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