The Fastest Land Mammal on Earth

Cheetahs, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

If there is one thing almost anyone could tell you about a cheetah is that they are fast; the fastest land mammal on the planet in fact. Reaching top speeds of 70 mph, cheetah’s can go from 0-60 mph in less than 3 seconds. That is faster than almost any sports car on the market! Running speed is made up of two things: stride length and number of strides taken. A cheetah’s stride length is between 20-25 feet. This makes them airborne for a distance more than 5 times their length. Their feet spend more time in the air when running than on the ground. At top speed they can have up to 4 strides per seconds. But what is it exactly that make cheetahs so fast?

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The short answer is that their entire bodies are literally build for speed, from head to tail. Their long and slender build is aerodynamically purposeful, constructed to cut through wind with minimum resistance. This, along with a lightweight frame, allows for their impressive acceleration. A cheetah’s head is the smallest size relative to their bodies of any cat. This not only contributes to the aerodynamic design, but also allows them to keep their head completely still while running at full speed. The black markings found under their eyes are called “tear marks” and serve like the black paint under an athlete’s eye. This helps to reflect the sunlight out of their eyes while hunting at dawn and dusk. These markings also act like the sight on a riffle, allowing the cheetah to “aim” and further focus on its prey while hunting. In addition to these tear marks, cheetahs also have what is known as binocular vision. This useful feature enables them to see up to 3 miles away, allowing for the ability to spot and stalk prey from great distances.

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Another similarity to athletes are their semi-retractable claws, which act like cleats to dig into the ground while running. Cheetahs also have fused ankle bones which function like braces, along with extended Achilles tendons for better shock absorption. The tail of a cheetah is long and flat which acts like the rudder on a boat to help steer and balance while at full speeds.

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Although slender, cheetahs have a large chest cavity with sizable lungs and heart to pump air and blood to muscles while running at full force. Their shoulder blades are reduced and free floating which act like tiny axles for sharp, tight turns, even in mid air. This, along with pivoting hips, allows the legs to stretch farther apart when fully extended and closer together when the feet come back under the body, increasing their stride length.

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Many similarities can be drawn between the cheetah and another notoriously fast human companion; the grey hound. However, one key difference between the two is where the power source of their speed comes from. In grey hounds their power comes from where most people would guess: their hind legs. In cheetahs, the main power source for their speed comes from their spine. A cheetah’s spine is proportionally the longest and most flexible of any large cat. When running, the spine flexes and stretches like a coiled spring, which increases stride length. This long flexible spine carries about 60% of the cat’s muscle mass. As a result, the cheetah can out run a grey hound at full speed by 25-30 mph. However, a cheetah can only hold these high speeds for very short sprints of only 30 seconds or up to about 500 meters. So, in a long distance race the grey hound would have the edge. Another fascinating comparison is a cheetah vs. a human. The fastest man in the world is Usain Bolt who holds the 100m world record at 9.58 seconds. At top speeds a cheetah could cover a similar distance of an entire football field in just over 3 seconds. Although cheetahs have the ability to reach these incredible speeds, they only have use for it while hunting. Here at Wildlife Safari our cheetahs don’t have to hunt for their food, so most days you will find them perfectly content being at rest!

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Mountain Lions in Oregon: The Biggest Predator You Never See

Carnivores, Creature Feature, Uncategorized

Just how likely are you to run into a fierce predator on your hike through a state park or national forest? Most of us assume it’s unlikely. The image that comes to mind is of rainforests or savannas housing tigers, lions and cheetahs. Those are half a world away from us, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

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With a distribution over two continents and the ability to adapt to a variety of climates, the mountain lion could be considered king of the American jungle. This species is the most widely distributed mammal in the Americas, with 30 subspecies and a bundle of common names including the cougar, puma, and panther. Mountain lions are on the bigger end of the smaller cats, weighing around 120-190 lbs. Their tan and reddish fur provide good cover in the trees and rocky mountains of both North and South America, while their classic felid jaws and claws aid in their ambush method of hunting of which there is a 70% success rate. Like most other cat species mountain lions are solitary animals, with the exception of mating and females with cubs.

Worldwide mountain lions are a species of least concern by the IUCN Redlist with an overall estimation of 30,000 individuals, but their numbers are starting to decrease. In fact, they aren’t found in the Eastern United States, after being hunted out in the last 200 years. The Pacific Northwest has a good portion of the United States’ mountain lions, with numbers around a few thousand in each state. They don’t appear to be limited by human activity, but rather by the amount of prey species available. In Oregon, the mountain lion population is estimated at 6,400 as of April 2017.

Each state monitors their populations in slightly different ways, and here the mountain lions fall under the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Their goal is to keep the population above the 1994 level of 3,000 individuals. They also monitor the number of conflict animals in the state, or animals that cause damage to people’s property or person. These animals will be removed if necessary, and if the number of conflicts is too high or the prey species are suffering losses from too many mountain lions ODFW is prepared to adjust the population. In other words they want a stable population of mountain lions, not too many or too few.

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In addition to monitoring the population status ODFW sets hunting regulations for the state. Mountain lions are listed as a big game species in Oregon, and are hunted using the same tag system as other big game. Hunters can take both males and females during the mountain lion season, but mothers with cubs are off limits. In the past it was legal to use hunting hounds to tree a lion, or track and corner a mountain lion in a tree. However, using hounds for hunting a mountain lion is illegal for sport hunters, which has lowered the success rates of mountain lion hunting in the state. There is some speculation that this could have caused an increase in the population, but as of now there is no research to support the theory.

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That’s not to say there is a lack of mountain lion research in Oregon, not by a long shot. There have been over a dozen research publications affiliated with ODFW in the last decade alone. They include subjects like establishing more accurate mountain lion densities and population growth rates, effects of lethal control, kill rates and prey selection, and the effects on population dynamics of elk (one of their prey species). In southwestern Oregon there was a long-term study from 1992-2003 that radio collared and captured mountain lions and gathered data on home ranges, prey interactions, reproduction, and dispersal. All of these pieces of research are important to the whole picture of the mountain lion-how it lives, factors that could affect its survival, and how to best live alongside one of our biggest top predators.

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So the next time you pick up your hiking boots, remember and respect the fact that you may not be as alone as you thought out there. Keep an eye out for tracks, because Oregon’s mountain lions can be seen if you know how to look.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2006. Oregon Cougar Management Plan. ODFW.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2015. Summary of Cougar Research in Oregon. ODFW Wildlife Division.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2015. Summary of Cougar Management in Neighboring States. ODFW Wildlife Division.

No kisses from these kitties!

Carnivores, Cheetahs, Uncategorized

If you have pet cats at home, you’ll be familiar with their rough tongues. While most animals have smooth tongues, cats actually have barbs on theirs and the bigger the cat, the bigger those barbs. Lions, tigers and cheetahs have large barbs designed to help them tear meat and hide of their prey while they eat.

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Tongue barbs on one of our lions – photo courtesy of Sara Wheaton

These are so effective that a lion could draw blood from skin in just a few licks! These barbs can also help them keep clean, assisting in removal of dirt when they groom themselves.