How to outrun a cheetah?

Why do animals make turns when they're running away from a predator?
06 October 2015

Interview with 

Professor Rory Wilson, University of Swansea


If you've ever watched wild animals like cheetahs pursue their dinner, a striking feature of the chase is that the prey frequently swerves left and right as they run away, apparently to wrong-foot the predator. But why does this work? Rory Wilson studies how animals move at the University of Swansea and he explained to Chris Smith...

Rory - We were really interested in the game of tag that predators play with their prey. We started looking at cheetahs which have this amazing capacity to run after their prey. But of course, the prey don't want to be caught. And so, we set to thinking about, well what determines whether the cheetah catches its prey and when the prey gets away.

Chris - Was this using video footage of predator-prey interactions to measure the different interactions and what strategies each use to try to catch or escape from the other?

Rory - Well, some of us have spent a lot of time looking at cheetahs in particular. But actually, it's extremely difficult to get proper information on turns and speeds and so on by just filming then. So, we were attaching technology to the cheetahs in collars around their necks. And so, when they chase the prey, we could find out things like how rapidly they turn and how many turns they make during a chase and so on, and so forth. And then when we recovered the collars, we could take the information off and put it through our computers.

Chris - What does this show? What do they do?

Rory - Cheetahs will take very small prey and they'll take very large prey. A cheetah itself might weight 30 or 40 kilograms so as much as a big dog. And they'll take prey as small as hares or as big as ostriches sometimes. One of the things that came up was that their hunting performance and the way they hunted depended on the prey they were trying to catch. In essence, the bigger the prey, the less the cheetah had to turn to catch them, so the small prey were jinking this way and that, and the bigger prey were just simply trying to run away with only a few big turns then.

Chris - Why does turning work as a strategy for a small prey item? Why does that help them to get away?

Rory - If you look at any animal and that includes big humans or you look at big animals like rhinoceroses, and you ask them to run or they do run and then they turn as fast as they can, the bigger they are, the wider the turn, that will put, a rhinoceros charging along will take a long time whereas something like a rabbit can turn very rapidly. There are power reasons for that. What that essentially means is if you're a rabbit and you're being chased by a cheetah and the cheetah is nearing and getting closer and closer to you, the thing you need to do is turn because you can actually outturn a cheetah.

Chris - When the rabbit turns, the cheetah takes proportionally longer and so therefore, the rabbit gains or puts more distance between the two of them. I presume that the longer the pursuit goes on, the greater the likelihood therefore that the cheetah is going to be tired out before it's actually caught up with the rabbit.

Rory - That's exactly what happens. In other words, you have the first part of a chase where the cheetah runs towards the rabbit or it runs towards the antelope and it gets closer and closer because the cheetah is faster. And then there comes a point where unless that animal then turns it will get caught by the cheetah and so it tries to do the sharpest turn it can and if it turns at dead right, it will turn really rapidly and the cheetah will overshoot it and then have to come around in a squeeching hard, very power intensive turn. If the rabbit however turns too early then the cheetah says aha! and can cut the corner that the rabbit has put in. so the timing of the turn is really, really critical.

Chris - You've done this on cheetahs. Is this generalisable if I take a bigger or a smaller animal than a cheetah, would I see the same "law" applying?

Rory - Absolutely and in fact, the physics of it tells us that simply the bigger animals have less power to turn, relatively less power to turn. And so, they have these big turning circles. That means the relative sizes of the predators and the prey are really important. If the predator is bigger than the prey, if you're the prey, the best way to get away is to run like crazy and then just as the predator is close enough, you turn as fast as you can. If you're bigger than the predator, then really, there's very little chance that you can get away by turning. You just got to run as fast as you can away and hope that your size and your power will enable you to mitigate some of the problems of the predator.

Chris - What about on the battlefield? If we take the same sorts of things, there are issues with for instance, a missile pursuing an aeroplane or a person pursuing another person, does the same rule apply, do you think?

Rory - Absolutely, the same rule applies. In some senses, you can see it in rugby. If someone kicks the ball up to the one end of the field and then rushes up the fallback it catches it and then the big question is, how fast should the person rushing up to the fall back and rush up because the fall back being stationery can turn rather more quickly. You have to remember that your ability to turn depends on your speed and your mass. So, the lower your speed, the quicker you can turn. But the bigger your mass, the slower you can turn. So, the fall back catching the ball and being stationery, being charged up by a forward from the other side, if that forward doesn't slow down, it's quite easy for the fall back to side step and then run up the field.


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