It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground
It clings to the neck of its prey
Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear.
Extract from the fourteenth-century enclyclopedia
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition
It’s the archetypal image. A tsunami of wildebeest engulfs the plains of the Masai Mara. Densely black and heaving like flies on a cadaver they appear to be consuming the landscape. There are literally hundreds of thousands of them thundering across the savannah in a welter of horns and hooves. As they arrive at the precipitous banks of the Mara River there’s a mass lemming-like leap into the void. And then the chocolate-churning river roils with straining black-maned bodies. It’s the money-shot, the poster image of the annual migration of the wildebeest. But it’s also the tip of the iceberg of the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’ because nine-tenths of the action actually takes place elsewhere; and at other times of year.
Typically, the famous Mara Crossing takes place between July and August in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. But there’s plenty of action elsewhere in Kenya, such as in the many conservancies that surround the Reserve. The great wilderness epic also features any number of different scenes. There’s the clash and charge of the rutting season, the bellowing melee of the mating season, and the madness of the calving season during which half a million calves are born within a couple of weeks.
And nor are all the actors in the migration epic wildebeest. Thousands of zebra pound alongside the 1.2 million wildebeest during their trek (though whether they do so as a gesture of solidarity or are just carried along on the tide of mania, it’s hard to tell). There’s also a star-studded cast of lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and vultures all of whom grow grossly fat on the spoils.
Until relatively recently, however, the cheetahs played only a bit part in the migration-fest. Cheetahs are not built for bringing down wildebeest. They’re fragile of frame, delicate of bone and they cannot afford to be injured by a flailing hoof. Yet their method of hunting relies on their being able to knock over their prey and kill it by clamping their jaws around its windpipe until it suffocates. Typically, then, they go for smaller animals.
Cheetahs hunt best in short bursts of chase at up to 60 mph. But wildebeest can run at 50 mph for hours on end so, again, they don’t make the ideal prey. Cheetahs have to eat their kill quickly before the lions, leopards, hyenas and vultures arrive. A wildebeest, however, makes a mega-meal meaning that once again the wildebeest is not ideal cheetah kill.
Lately, however research has shown that East Africa’s cheetahs have adapted to embrace the mechanics of the migration. Increasingly, they seem to hunt in pairs. It’s a canny move. It’s not just that an orchestrated pincer movement helps in separating the victim from the herd, but also that two jaws clamped around a windpipe act faster than one; and two stomachs are more swiftly filled than one.
The cheetah has also manifested another fascinating genetic modification, giving it a unique competitive advantage over all other cats. The fastest living land mammal, a cheetah can accelerate from 0-60mph in around three seconds, which is faster than the 2019 Porsche 911 Carrera (0-60mph in 4.2 seconds). Unlike all other cats, however, its head doesn’t rock while it is running at speed. And this means that it can lock its gaze on the prey with the tenacity of a heat-seeking missile. Why doesn’t the cheetah’s head rock? It’s all to do with the structure of its inner ear.
We all have inner ears, and we all use them to keep our balance, but researchers at the American Museum of Natural History recently decided to investigate the cheetah’s genetic modification by putting the skulls of 14 different species of cat, including extinct species of cheetahs, through a high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) machine. The results of the study revealed that the inner ear of the modern cheetah is much larger, relative to its body size, than all other cats. And that the hairs and canals at its centre have been genetically honed so as to ensure that the animal’s head doesn’t move up-and-down or side-to-side when it is running – even at speed. They also discovered that this evolutionary tweak is a relatively recent thing, which suggests that the cheetah has elected to cheat the odds.
Or to put it another way: the cheetah has decided to play the migration game by ear.
Other curious cheetah facts
A cheetah has long, black lines which run from the inside of each eye to the mouth. These are usually called ‘tear lines’ and scientists believe they help protect the cheetah’s eyes from the harsh sun and help them to see long distances.
Cheetahs have between 2,000 and 3,000 spots.
Cheetahs are the only big cat that can turn in mid-air while sprinting.
Cheetahs are the only big cat that cannot roar. They can purr though and usually purr most loudly when they are grooming or sitting near other cheetahs.
While lions and leopards usually do their hunting at night, cheetahs hunt for food during the day.
A cheetah has amazing eyesight during the day and can spot prey from 5 km away.
Cheetahs rarely climb trees and have poor night vision.