Study Finds New Worry for Endangered Cheetahs

They become more nocturnal on hot days, and that could mean less food for them
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 8, 2023 2:30 PM CST
Study Finds New Worry for Endangered Cheetahs
A female cheetah and her cub sit watchfully in front of a herd of zebra in northern Botswana on Aug. 23, 2011. The female wears a GPS collar as part of a study.   (Briana Abrahms via AP)

Cheetahs are usually daytime hunters, but the speedy big cats will shift their activity toward dawn and dusk hours during warmer weather, a new study finds. Unfortunately for endangered cheetahs, that sets them up for more potential conflicts with mostly nocturnal competing predators such as lions and leopards, say the authors of research published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. For the current study, researchers placed GPS tracking collars on 53 large carnivores—including cheetahs, lions, leopards, and African wild dogs—and recorded their locations and hours of activity over eight years. They compared this data with maximum daily temperature records.

Hunting at different times of the day is one long-evolved strategy to reduce encounters between the multiple predator species that share northern Botswana's mixed savanna and forest landscape. But the new study found that on the hottest days, when maximum daily temperatures soared to nearly 113 degrees Fahrenheit, cheetahs became more nocturnal—increasing their overlapping hunting hours with rival big cats by 16%. That could mean less food for the cheetahs, said co-author Kasim Rafiq, a biologist at the University of Washington and the nonprofit Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.

While cheetahs only eat fresh meat, lions and leopards will sometimes opportunistically scavenge from smaller predators, reports the AP. "Lions and leopards normally kill prey themselves, but if they come across a cheetah's kill, they will try to take it," said Bettina Wachter, a behavioral biologist who leads the Cheetah Research Project at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. "The cheetahs will not fight the larger cats, they will just leave," said Wachter, who's based in Namibia and wasn't involved in the study.

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Although seasonal cycles explain most temperature fluctuations in the study window of 2011 to 2018, the scientists say the observed behavior changes offer a peek into the future of a warming world. "These climate changes could become really critical if we look into the future—it's predicted to become much warmer in this part of Africa where cheetahs live, in Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia," said Wachter. In addition to competition with lions and leopards, cheetahs already face severe pressure from habitat fragmentation and conflict with humans; there are fewer than 7,000 left in the wild in Africa. In the next phase of research, the scientists plan to use audio-recording devices and accelerometers—"like a Fitbit for big cats," said Rafiq—to document the frequency of encounters between large carnivores.

(More discoveries stories.)

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