As if you needed another reason to not mess with cheetahs, researchers have found that the animal's blistering speed is only part of its hunting arsenal.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers explained that cheetahs also boast remarkable reflexes and agility, and that they can accelerate faster than a Ferrari. Those tools, more so than sheer speed, they said, account for the cheetah's ferocious hunting ability.
Using solar-powered collars with built-in GPS, researchers measured the speed and movements of five cheetahs in the wild for six to nine months each, recording 367 hunting runs. While captive cheetahs have been clocked at speeds over 60 miles-per-hour, the researchers found that their wild cheetahs typically ran at just half that speed when chasing prey.
What they found instead was that the animals boasted acceleration and turning speeds that either matched or topped those exhibited by all other land creatures.
The cheetahs they tracked churned out double the acceleration power of greyhounds — and four times that of sprinter Usain Bolt — to nab prey. In addition, they were able to stop almost instantaneously and change course, enabling them to stay on the tail of elusive prey. Incredibly, the researchers found that cheetahs can slow down by up to nine miles-per-hour in a single stride.
"We have always thought of cheetahs as sprinters, but now it looks as though sprinting is only part of the story," said London Royal Veterinary College's Alan Wilson, who led the study.
Scientists had already known that cheetahs were the fastest land animals. With their flexible spines, cheetahs can swing their legs in huge arcs, which allows them to take long, powerful strides and reach recorded top speeds up to 64 miles-per-hour.
In a National Geographic study coordinated with the Cincinnati Zoo last year, a cheetah was clocked at 61-miles-per-hour on a U.S.-certified track. That speed resulted in a 5.59-second 100-meter dash, well below Usain Bolt's world-record of 9.58 seconds.
"She looked like a polka-dotted missile," National Geographic photo editor Kim Hubbard said of the cheetah.