Last updated January 25, 2018 at 5:20 pm
In the predator-prey arms race between cheetah, impala, lion and zebra, the predators are more athletic, more powerful, faster and manoeuvrable.
If you’re an impala, grazing on the African Savannah, your best bet on escaping being eaten by a cheetah is to be unpredictable. In a chase, it’s the prey which set the speed and timing of accelerations and turns, and it’s up to the predator to be able to predict their movements and keep up to eventually capture them.
Alan Wilson and colleagues from University of London attached GPS tracking collars to track the biomechanics of predator-prey chases between cheetah-impala and lion-zebra chases across the savannah of Botswana.
Stride speed and acceleration were measured from GPS collars, and they also calculated the peak power output from muscle biopsies of all four animals.
Analysis of over 5,000 high speed pursuits were analysed and a model created to predict the best hunting or escape method for each animal.
Prey win out when they’re unpredictable
Overall cheetah and impala were more athletic than lion and zebra, but in both predator-prey pairs, it was the carnivores which had higher muscle power, and were quicker both to slow down and to speed up.
The data showed that the impala and zebra have a better chance of escaping if they turn rather than attempt to increase the distance between them and the predator by running as fast as possible.
Anyone who watched season six of Game of Thrones knows, running in a straight line is a recipe for disaster.
As the impala or zebra speed up, they have an increased risk of capture because their movements become more predictable – when they’re travelling faster they can’t turn as easily.
In a high speed chase, cheetah and lions have a better chance of capturing their targets. The slower prey animals move, the more they can turn, and so the more opportunity they have to escape because their movements are less predictable.
The model also helped explain why some animals prefer some types of prey to others. The model predicts that lions would not often successfully capture Impala, and lion in the wild rarely do hunt impala in open pursuit.