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Cheetahs and pumas balance their needs to be effective hunters

Cheetah walking in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa/Botswana.
[Credit: Michael G.L. Mills]

It's not easy being a predator. Finding, chasing and killing your prey is hard work, and it requires a lot of energy. That's why researchers have been studying medium-sized predators (mesopredators) like cheetahs and pumas so much: They want to know how these wild cats are able to hunt so effectively without exhausting themselves.

Now, two new studies in Science show that cheetahs and pumas have their hunts down to a science. Apparently, the cats aren't as limited by their resources--nor by bigger predators, such as lions--as researchers have imagined. However, the researchers who performed these studies warn that human activity could disrupt the balance that these mesopredators have struck with nature over thousands of years of evolution.

David Scantlebury and a team of researchers from around the world spent weeks at a time observing the behaviors of cheetahs in Africa. They saw when the cats slept, sat, walked, and ran--and they analyzed the cheetahs' urine in order to estimate how much energy the cats were spending each day. The researchers discovered that these African cheetahs were in motion for about 12% of their days--and that the mass of their prey depended on how far the cheetahs had traveled earlier that day. Even when larger predators, like lions and hyenas, stole their meals from them, the cheetahs only had to spend 12% more energy and another hour hunting to find another meal. Now, that's an effective hunter!

A separate group of researchers, led by Terrie Williams, focused on pumas in California, which have a more patient approach to hunting. These researchers developed a new SMART collar, which tracks the movements and whereabouts of any cat that wears it, and put them on four wild pumas, tracking the wild cats' behavior as they hunted for food among the Santa Cruz Mountains. Data from these SMART collars suggests that pumas spend about 2.3 times more energy locating their prey than researchers had expected--but the cats balance this energy loss by sitting around, waiting for their prey to come to them, and then perfectly matching the force of their attack--or pounce--to the size of their prey. The wild cats must have adapted this effective form of hunting over thousands of years of evolution, the researchers suggest.