Looking for, not catching, prey drains big cats’ energy

Quick attacks help cheetahs and pumas ease metabolic cost of hunting

Cheetah trotting in sand

ON THE PROWL  Cheetahs burn more energy prowling for prey than they do chasing it down. The big cats’ quick bursts of speed are so short that they don’t use much of the animals’ daily energy budget, researchers report.

Michael G.L. Mills

For some big cats, searching for dinner takes more effort than snagging it, scientists report in two papers in the Oct. 3 Science.

Researchers have long known that to catch prey, cheetahs chase and pumas pounce, but no one had calculated just how much effort each animal puts into its hunting strategy.

Biologist David M. Scantlebury of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland and his team tracked 19 African cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and analyzed their urine to gauge the animals’ energy use. Though cheetahs were mobile for just 12 percent of the day, prowling around the hot, dry landscape sapped 42 percent of the energy they typically spent per day. Speedy pursuits, on the other hand, lasted just a few seconds and used only a tiny portion of the animals’ daily energy budget.

Another team of scientists, including biologist Terrie Williams of the University of California, Santa Cruz outfitted four nearby wild pumas (Puma concolor), also known as mountain lions, with tracking collars. The team also measured how much energy pumas use with three captive cats trained to walk on treadmills.

By comparing data from the wild and captive pumas, the researchers discovered that the big cats use more than twice as much energy locating prey as scientists had predicted. Ambushing prey in quick, short sneak attacks may ease the high energetic cost of hunting, the team suggests.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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