Page last updated at 05:02 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 06:02 UK

Speedy cheetahs put through paces

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News


With the help of a running track, cameras and a bit of chicken - scientists try to uncover mystery of cheetah speed

Scientists are attempting to discover exactly what makes cheetahs the fastest running animals on the planet.

A Royal Veterinary College (RVC) team is using high-speed cameras and a sensitive track to monitor the big cats as they sprint.

Cheetahs can reach speeds of at least 104km/h (64mph) and they can achieve their top speed in just a few paces.

The study is being carried out with North African cheetahs from ZSL Whipsnade Zoo.

Professor Alan Wilson, head of the structure and motion laboratory at RVC, said: "The cheetah is fascinating because it can run 50% faster than any of the other animals we are familiar with, so in terms of understanding what limits how fast you can run, the cheetah is a wonderful animal to study."

Chasing chicken

Just as most domestic cats cannot resist chasing a piece of string, cheetahs also find the temptation of some twitching twine too difficult to ignore - especially if a tasty treat is dangling from the end.

Cheetah chasing chicken (Structure and Motion Lab, Royal Veterinary College)
The lure of some string to play with is too difficult to resist

So the research team entice the zoo's cheetahs to run by attaching some choice chicken pieces - wings and feet are a favourite - to a loop of fast-moving string that is pulled along the enclosure by an electric motor.

And as the cats chase the chicken feast, four high-speed cameras, which record at 1,000 frames per second - compared with 25 frames per second for standard cameras - capture their every move.

Penny Hudson, a PhD student at RVC, said: "We use two cameras on each side of the enclosure so we can see the cheetah from both sides.

"When a cheetah gallops, it does different things with either side of its body - it has an asymmetric gait."

The scientists are also using special plates that are embedded within the cheetahs' running track.

Miss Hudson explained: "The plates are like sophisticated weighing scales that are able to measure all the forces going through their legs."

Lightning Bolt

The scientists are going to compare their results with other studies that have been carried out on greyhounds, which can reach top speeds of approximately 60km/h (40mph).

The researchers are comparing how cheetahs and greyhounds run

Miss Hudson said: "Greyhounds are artificially bred by us to be fast, whereas these [cats] have evolved for that.

"But cheetahs can run much faster than a racing greyhound.

"So we're trying to get them running at similar speeds to see what they do that's the same and what they do that makes them go that little bit faster."

In speedy humans - the fastest on record being Usain Bolt who ran 100m in 9.69 seconds (an average of 37km/h or 23mph) - speed is thought to be constrained by leg strength.

Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt ran the 100m in 9.69 seconds

While in greyhounds, speed is believed to be limited by how quickly the dogs can swing their legs.

But for cheetahs - the reasons are still unclear - so the data from the experiments will be used to examine the forces and dynamics of the cats' legs, their speed, the length of each stride, as well as joint angles and posture.

Miss Hudson added: "We really don't know what it is about cheetahs that make them run so fast - it might be their flexible spines, or it might be their shoulder blades, it could be that they stretch their legs a bit more, but hopefully the data will unravel some of those mysteries."

Wild cats

Although cheetahs' speedy reputation is well documented, there is still a question mark hanging over the top speeds that one can reach.

In 1997, a paper published in the Journal of Zoology gave the figure at 104km/h (64mph). The data came from an experiment that took place in Kenya in 1965, where a captive cheetah was timed as it chased the remains of a Sunday lunch attached to the back of a 4x4 vehicle.

North African cheetah (ZSL Whipsnade)
So far the captive cheetahs are reaching top speeds of 54km/h

But researchers think it is very likely that the cats can run even faster than this.

Professor Wilson, whose biomechanics research is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, said that the captive cheetahs at Whipsnade were so far reaching 54km/h (34mph).

He explained: "We know that cheetahs won't reach their full speed here. We hope they'll get to as fast as our racing greyhounds do, and we hope to get to a bigger space to do this."

The team also hopes to study cheetahs in the wild - where they would like to look at how wild cats run and also attempt to record a more accurate top speed.

Professor Wilson said: "Eventually we'd love to be able to get GPS and video data from cheetahs in the wild that are out and hunting - this is where they will be at the limits of their performance."

North African cheetah (ZSL Whipsnade)
The team hopes to study the cheetahs in a larger enclosure

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