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Cheetahs modify their prey handling behavior depending on risks from top predators
Abstract and Figures
While handling large kills, mesocarnivores are particularly vulnerable to kleptoparasitism and predation from larger predators. We used 35 years of observational data on cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) hunts in Serengeti National Park to investigate whether cheetahs’ prey handling behavior varied in response to threats from lions (Panthera leo) and spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Male cheetahs and single females, whose main threat was kleptoparasitism, minimized time on the kill by being less vigilant and eating quickly, thereby shortening their handling times. Mothers with cubs showed a different strategy that prioritized vigilance over speed of eating, which increased time spent handling prey. Vigilance allowed them to minimize the risk of their cubs being killed while giving cubs the time they need to eat at the carcass. Flexible behavioral strategies that minimize individual risk while handling prey likely allow mesocarnivores to coexist with numerous and widespread apex predators. Significance statement Medium-sized carnivores like cheetahs face the challenge of coexisting with larger carnivores that steal their kills and kill their cubs. We investigated how cheetahs modify their behavior on kills to minimize risks from larger predators. Using 35 years of data on 400+ cheetah hunts across 159 individuals, we found that cheetahs without cubs whose primary danger is having their kill stolen spent little time engaged in vigilance and instead ate quickly, reducing the risk of theft. Mothers with cubs, however, took a slower approach and were more vigilant while handling prey to avoid cub predation by lions and spotted hyenas. The ability of cheetahs to modify their prey handling behavior depending on the type of risk they face likely allows them to coexist with numerous larger carnivores.
Figures - available from: Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
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