Just the word ‘cheetah’ is enough to evoke images of a sleek and nimble big cat blending easily into high, dry grasslands of the sub-Saharan Africa, silently stalking an antelope or a hare before sprinting at an incredible pace along the open grassy plains to bring down its unsuspecting prey.
With its sharp eyesight, stealthy movements and raw velocity, the cheetah is probably one of the world’s most formidable hunters. What makes it one of the deadliest and most successful predators is its extraordinary speed and ability to take quick and sudden turns while in hot pursuit of its prey.
The cheetah is recognized as the world's fastest land mammal. According to National Geographic.com, this elegant and graceful member of cat family can go from 0 to 60 miles (96 kilometers) an hour in only three seconds…. an acceleration that would leave most of its competition in the dust.
Now a team of Japanese researchers has successfully mapped the muscle fibers of the cheetah to find the secret which enables this hunter to accelerate to record-breaking speeds within seconds. The findings have been published in the journal Mammalian Biology and examine how the muscle fibers of domestic cats and beagle dogs compare with those of the world's fastest land mammal.
Dr Naomi Wada, the study's co-author and Professor in System Physiology at Yamaguchi University in Japan has used the analogy of a ‘rear wheel-drive car’ to explain how the propulsive role of the hind limb is greater than the forelimb in the cheetah.
In a rear wheel drive car, the rear wheels of the automobile do the pushing while the front wheels are reserved for the steering duties. Other characteristics of rear wheel drive include better weight balance and better acceleration and de-acceleration on the road. Because of more effective distribution of balance, rear drive cars brake better and come to a stop more smoothly.
The cheetah’s body is built for speed in a similar manner. The study finds that the functional difference between forelimb and hindlimb is the most remarkable in the cheetah as compared to the other animals under study. The different types of muscle fibers in a cheetah are also suited to different activities.
The researchers found that there is a high percentage of Type IIx fibers spread over a wide range from the thoracic to lumbar parts in a cheetah. Type IIx or "fast" fibers have low endurance but create a high force output and are key to fast running or galloping. Cheetah’s muscle fibers also ensure that the mammal can produce a strong and quick extension of the spinal column and increase its stiffness during locomotion which is necessary for the rapid sprinting motion.
Due to its long, flexible limbs, a sprinting cheetah spends more than half its time airborne and controls its balance by using its forefeet to turn and slow down. A cheetah uses its exceptionally keen eyesight to scan its environment for any signs of prey. If spotted, the cheetah goes for the kill with the amazing speed and skill that Nature has endowed upon it. It would then drag its prey to a shady hiding place and enjoy its meal.