Cheetahs become more nocturnal on hot days. Climate change may increase conflicts between big cats in Africa.

Cheetahs become more nocturnal on hot days.  Climate change may increase conflicts between big cats in Africa.

A new study has found that cheetahs are usually daytime hunters, but the big, fast cats will shift their activity toward the dawn and dusk hours during warm weather.

Unfortunately for endangered cheetahs, that sets them up for more potential conflicts with competing nocturnal predators like lions and cheetahs, say the authors of the research published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Changing temperatures can affect the behavior patterns of large carnivore species as well as the dynamics between species,” said Brianna Abrams, a biologist at the University of Washington and co-author of the study.

While cheetahs only eat fresh meat, lions and cheetahs sometimes opportunistically scavenge small predators.

“Lions and cheetahs usually kill their prey themselves, but if they come across cheetah prey, they will try to seize it,” says Bettina Wachter, a behavioral biologist who leads the cheetah research project at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

“The cheetahs won’t fight the bigger cats, they’ll just leave,” said Wachter, who lives in Namibia and was not involved in the study.

Hunting at different times of day is one strategy that has long been developed to reduce encounters between multiple predator species that share the savannas and mixed forests of northern Botswana.

But the new study found that on hotter days, when maximum daily temperatures rise to nearly 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), cheetahs become more nocturnal — increasing their hunting hours overlapping with competing big cats by 16%.

“There is a greater chance of more unfriendly encounters and less food for the cheetahs,” said co-author Qasim Rafiq, a biologist at the University of Washington and the nonprofit Predator Conservation Fund in Botswana.

For the current study, researchers placed GPS tracking collars on 53 large carnivores — including cheetahs, lions, cheetahs and African wild dogs — and recorded their locations and hours of activity over eight years. They compared this data with records of daily maximum temperatures.

While seasonal cycles explain most of the temperature fluctuations in the study period from 2011 to 2018, scientists say the observed behavioral changes offer a glimpse into the future of a warming world.

In the next phase of the research, scientists plan to use audio recorders and accelerometers — “like a Fitbit for big cats,” Rafiq said — to document the frequency of encounters between large carnivores.

In addition to competing with lions and leopards, cheetahs already face severe pressure from habitat fragmentation and conflict with humans.

The fastest land animal, the cheetah is the rarest of Africa’s big cats, with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild.

“These climate changes could become really critical if we look to the future – they are expected to become much warmer in the part of Africa where cheetahs live, in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia,” said Wachter of the Cheetah Research Project.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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