Lions (Panthera leo) feed on diverse prey species, a range that is broadened by their cooperative hunting. Although humans are not typical prey, habitual man-eating by lions is well documented. Fathoming the motivations of the Tsavo and Mfuwe man-eaters (killed in 1898 in Kenya and 1991 in Zambia, respectively) may be elusive, but we can clarify aspects of their behaviour using dental microwear texture analysis. Specifically, we analysed the surface textures of lion teeth to assess whether these notorious man-eating lions scavenged carcasses during their depredations. Compared to wild-caught lions elsewhere in Africa and other large feliforms, including cheetahs and hyenas, dental microwear textures of the man-eaters do not suggest extreme durophagy (e.g. bone processing) shortly before death. Dental injuries to two of the three man-eaters examined may have induced shifts in feeding onto softer foods. Further, prompt carcass reclamation by humans likely limited the man-eaters' access to bones. Man-eating was likely a viable alternative to hunting and/or scavenging ungulates due to dental disease and/or limited prey availability.
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
- Published almost 3 years ago
Establishing and maintaining protected areas (PAs) are key tools for biodiversity conservation. However, this approach is insufficient for many species, particularly those that are wide-ranging and sparse. The cheetah Acinonyx jubatus exemplifies such a species and faces extreme challenges to its survival. Here, we show that the global population is estimated at ∼7,100 individuals and confined to 9% of its historical distributional range. However, the majority of current range (77%) occurs outside of PAs, where the species faces multiple threats. Scenario modeling shows that, where growth rates are suppressed outside PAs, extinction rates increase rapidly as the proportion of population protected declines. Sensitivity analysis shows that growth rates within PAs have to be high if they are to compensate for declines outside. Susceptibility of cheetah to rapid decline is evidenced by recent rapid contraction in range, supporting an uplisting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List threat assessment to endangered. Our results are applicable to other protection-reliant species, which may be subject to systematic underestimation of threat when there is insufficient information outside PAs. Ultimately, conserving many of these species necessitates a paradigm shift in conservation toward a holistic approach that incentivizes protection and promotes sustainable human-wildlife coexistence across large multiple-use landscapes.
Assessing the numbers and distribution of threatened species is a central challenge in conservation, often made difficult because the species of concern are rare and elusive. For some predators, this may be compounded by their being sparsely distributed over large areas. Such is the case with the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. The IUCN Red List process solicits comments, is democratic, transparent, widely-used, and has recently assessed the species. Here, we present additional methods to that process and provide quantitative approaches that may afford greater detail and a benchmark against which to compare future assessments. The cheetah poses challenges, but also affords unique opportunities. It is photogenic, allowing the compilation of thousands of crowd-sourced data. It is also persecuted for killing livestock, enabling estimation of local population densities from the numbers persecuted. Documented instances of persecution in areas with known human and livestock density mean that these data can provide an estimate of where the species may or may not occur in areas without observational data. Compilations of extensive telemetry data coupled with nearly 20,000 additional observations from 39 sources show that free-ranging cheetahs were present across approximately 789,700 km2 of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (56%, 22%, 12% and 10% respectively) from 2010 to 2016, with an estimated adult population of 3,577 animals. We identified a further 742,800 km2 of potential cheetah habitat within the study region with low human and livestock densities, where another ∼3,250 cheetahs may occur. Unlike many previous estimates, we make the data available and provide explicit information on exactly where cheetahs occur, or are unlikely to occur. We stress the value of gathering data from public sources though these data were mostly from well-visited protected areas. There is a contiguous, transboundary population of cheetah in southern Africa, known to be the largest in the world. We suggest that this population is more threatened than believed due to the concentration of about 55% of free-ranging individuals in two ecoregions. This area overlaps with commercial farmland with high persecution risk; adult cheetahs were removed at the rate of 0.3 individuals per 100 km2 per year. Our population estimate for confirmed cheetah presence areas is 11% lower than the IUCN’s current assessment for the same region, lending additional support to the recent call for the up-listing of this species from vulnerable to endangered status.
The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest living land mammal. Because of its specialized hunting strategy, this species evolved a series of specialized morphological and functional body features to increase its exceptional predatory performance during high-speed hunting. Using high-resolution X-ray computed micro-tomography (μCT), we provide the first analyses of the size and shape of the vestibular system of the inner ear in cats, an organ essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture and gaze direction during movement in most vertebrates. We demonstrate that the vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analysed (12 modern and two fossil felid species), including a closely-related fossil cheetah species. These distinctive attributes (i.e., one of the greatest volumes of the vestibular system, dorsal extension of the anterior and posterior semicircular canals) correlate with a greater afferent sensitivity of the inner ear to head motions, facilitating postural and visual stability during high-speed prey pursuit and capture. These features are not present in the fossil cheetah A. pardinensis, that went extinct about 126,000 years ago, demonstrating that the unique and highly specialized inner ear of the sole living species of cheetah likely evolved extremely recently, possibly later than the middle Pleistocene.
Many ecological theories and species conservation programmes rely on accurate estimates of population density. Accurate density estimation, especially for species facing rapid declines, requires the application of rigorous field and analytical methods. However, obtaining accurate density estimates of carnivores can be challenging as carnivores naturally exist at relatively low densities and are often elusive and wide-ranging. In this study, we employ an unstructured spatial sampling field design along with a Bayesian sex-specific spatially explicit capture-recapture (SECR) analysis, to provide the first rigorous population density estimates of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. We estimate adult cheetah density to be between 1.28 ± 0.315 and 1.34 ± 0.337 individuals/100km2 across four candidate models specified in our analysis. Our spatially explicit approach revealed ‘hotspots’ of cheetah density, highlighting that cheetah are distributed heterogeneously across the landscape. The SECR models incorporated a movement range parameter which indicated that male cheetah moved four times as much as females, possibly because female movement was restricted by their reproductive status and/or the spatial distribution of prey. We show that SECR can be used for spatially unstructured data to successfully characterise the spatial distribution of a low density species and also estimate population density when sample size is small. Our sampling and modelling framework will help determine spatial and temporal variation in cheetah densities, providing a foundation for their conservation and management. Based on our results we encourage other researchers to adopt a similar approach in estimating densities of individually recognisable species.
Patterns of genetic and genomic variance are informative in inferring population history for human, model species and endangered populations.
Although the cheetah is recognised as the fastest land animal, little is known about other aspects of its notable athleticism, particularly when hunting in the wild. Here we describe and use a new tracking collar of our own design, containing a combination of Global Positioning System (GPS) and inertial measurement units, to capture the locomotor dynamics and outcome of 367 predominantly hunting runs of five wild cheetahs in Botswana. A remarkable top speed of 25.9 m s(-1) (58 m.p.h. or 93 km h(-1)) was recorded, but most cheetah hunts involved only moderate speeds. We recorded some of the highest measured values for lateral and forward acceleration, deceleration and body-mass-specific power for any terrestrial mammal. To our knowledge, this is the first detailed locomotor information on the hunting dynamics of a large cursorial predator in its natural habitat.
Deserts are particularly vulnerable to human impacts and have already suffered a substantial loss of biodiversity. In harsh and variable desert environments, large herbivores typically occur at low densities, and their large carnivore predators occur at even lower densities. The continued survival of large carnivores is key to healthy functioning desert ecosystems, and the ability to gather reliable information on these rare low density species, including presence, abundance and density, is critical to their monitoring and management. Here we test camera trap methodologies as a monitoring tool for an extremely rare wide-ranging large felid, the critically endangered Saharan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus hecki). Two camera trapping surveys were carried out over 2-3 months across a 2,551km2 grid in the Ti-n-hağğen region in the Ahaggar Cultural Park, south central Algeria. A total of 32 records of Saharan cheetah were obtained. We show the behaviour and ecology of the Saharan cheetah is severely constrained by the harsh desert environment, leading them to be more nocturnal, be more wide-ranging, and occur at lower densities relative to cheetah in savannah environments. Density estimates ranged from 0.21-0.55/1,000km2, some of the lowest large carnivore densities ever recorded in Africa, and average home range size over 2-3 months was estimated at 1,583km2. We use our results to predict that, in order to detect presence of cheetah with p>0.95 a survey effort of at least 1,000 camera trap days is required. Our study identifies the Ahaggar Cultural Park as a key area for the conservation of the Saharan cheetah. The Saharan cheetah meets the requirements for a charismatic flagship species that can be used to “market” the Saharan landscape at a sufficiently large scale to help reverse the historical neglect of threatened Saharan ecosystems.
Animals navigate their environment using a variety of senses and strategies. This multiplicity enables them to respond to different navigational requirements resulting from habitat, scale and purpose. One of the challenges social animals face is how to reunite after periods of separation. We explore a variety of possible mechanisms used to reunite the members of a cheetah coalition dispersed within a large area after prolonged separation. Using GPS data from three cheetahs reuniting after weeks of separation, we determined that 1) the likelihood of purely coincidental reunion is miniscule 2) the reunion occurred in an area not normally frequented 3) with very little time spent in the region in advance of the reunion. We therefore propose that timely encounter of scent markings where paths cross is the most likely mechanism used to aid the reunion.
The non-invasive measurement of adrenocortical function in cheetahs is an important tool to assess stress in captive and free-ranging individuals, because stress has been suggested to be one of the causes of poor reproductive performance of captive cheetahs. We tested four enzyme immunoassays (EIA) in two captive cheetahs in Germany using adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) challenges and identified the corticosterone-3-CMO EIA to be most sensitive to the increase in faecal glucocorticoid metabolite (fGCM) concentrations after the ACTH challenge. This EIA performed also well in five captive cheetahs in South Africa. The fGCM concentrations across all seven cheetahs increased within 24h by 681% compared to the baseline levels prior to ACTH. Storage of faecal samples at 0-4°C did not strongly affect fGCM concentrations within 24h, simplifying sample collection when immediate storage at -20°C is not feasible. The two cheetahs in Germany also received an injection of [(3)H]cortisol to characterise fGCMs in faecal extracts using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) immunograms. HPLC fractions were measured for their radioactivity and immunoreactive fGCM concentrations with the corticosterone-3-CMO EIA, respectively. The results revealed a polar peak of radiolabelled cortisol metabolites co-eluting with the major peak of immunoreactive fGCMs. Thus, our EIA measured substantial amounts of fGCMs corresponding to the radioactive peaks. The peaks were of higher polarity than native cortisol and corticosterone, suggesting that the metabolites were conjugated, which was confirmed by solvolysis of the HPLC fractions. Our results show that the corticosterone-3-CMO EIA is a reliable tool to assess fGCMs in cheetahs.