Climate change and rising temperatures are impacting all forms of life, including large predators like leopards, and cheetahs. A recent study has raised concerns that these increasing temperatures are altering the behaviour of such predators.
Heat alters predator-hunting behaviour
The study revealed that the heat is forcing predators to hunt during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening, instead of their usual daytime hunting. This shift in hunting times could potentially increase the risk of conflict between predators like leopards, lions, and cheetahs that usually hunt at night.
“Changing temperatures can impact the behaviour patterns of large carnivore species and also the dynamics among species,” Briana Abrahms, a biologist at the University of Washington and a study co-author, said.
Cheetahs, the fastest land animals, are already facing numerous challenges. Their global population has declined from 15,000 in 1975 to less than 7,000 today.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, involved tracking 53 large predators like cheetahs, lions, leopards, and African wild dogs for eight years using GPS trackers. The recorded data was then matched with the highest temperature recorded each day.
The research revealed that on extremely hot days, when the maximum daytime temperature reaches 45 degrees Celsius, cheetahs become more active at night rather than during the day. This change in hunting habits to avoid the increasing heat could increase the risk of conflict with other big cats during their hunting time by 16 percent.
Cheetahs face heat, predators, habitat loss
“Lions and leopards normally kill prey themselves, but if they come across a cheetah’s kill, they will try to take it,” said Bettina Wachter, a behavioral biologist who leads the Cheetah Research Project at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
“Wachter, based in Namibia and not involved in the study, said, “The cheetahs will not fight the larger cats, they will just leave.
“There’s a greater chance for more unfriendly encounters and less food for the cheetahs,” said co-author Kasim Rafiq, a biologist at the University of Washington and the nonprofit Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.
Most of the temperature changes observed between 2011 and 2018 were due to seasonal changes. However, scientists believe that these behavioral changes provide a glimpse of what could happen in a warming world amid rising temperatures.
Cheetahs are not only facing competition from lions and leopards but also dealing with habitat loss and increasing conflict with humans.
Cheetahs adapt to rising temperatures
A recent study discovered that on the hottest days, with temperatures reaching nearly 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), cheetahs adapt by becoming more active at night. This change increases their hunting hours overlap with other big cats by 16%, leading to a higher chance of encounters and less food availability for cheetahs, according to Kasim Rafiq, a biologist at the University of Washington and the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.
The study involved GPS tracking of 53 large carnivores, including cheetahs, lions, leopards, and African wild dogs, over eight years. The tracked data was then compared with maximum daily temperature records. While most temperature fluctuations from 2011 to 2018 were due to seasonal cycles, the observed behaviour changes provide insight into potential future scenarios in a warming world.
The next phase of the research will involve using audio-recording devices and accelerometers, described by Rafiq as a “Fitbit for big cats,” to document encounters between large carnivores.
Cheetahs, the fastest land animal and the rarest big cat in Africa with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild, already face challenges from habitat fragmentation, conflict with humans, and competition with lions and leopards.
According to Wachter of the Cheetah Research Project, the predicted increase in temperatures in parts of Africa where cheetahs live, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, could exacerbate these pressures.
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