Cheetahs: the quick and the dead


The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, controls sensory locomotion, orientation and equilibrium. It’s what helps humans and most other mammals maintain balance and adjust posture when active. The faster you move, the harder it is to stay upright and balanced. So, how do you maintain balance when you’re capable of running up to 29 metres per second?

This could be an issue for the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), a member of the felid family, one of the ‘big cat’ (Pantherinae) subspecies and the fastest land mammal around. With their light frame, and long limbs and tail, they are already physically adapted to a highly specialised hunting strategy that involves hunting relatively small prey at extremely high bursts of speed. They hunt small to reduce the risk of injury and eat fast to avoid larger scavenging felids and other scavengers such as vultures.

During a hunt, a cheetah will maintain its head posture and gaze in the direction of its prey, even while manoeuvring and changing direction rapidly. And once the prey is caught, a rapid deceleration requires the same level of balance and control. How are cheetahs able to perform such an intricate hunting strategy and maintain poise without falling all over themselves?

Researchers have discovered an adaptation in the vestibular system of the inner ear that allows cheetahs to stay upright and focussed while in the midst of chasing down prey at  high speed.1

Using cutting-edge CT and 3D reconstruction technology, researchers from the American Museum of Natural History in cheetah specimens with other related extant species, as well as an early ancestor, A. pardinensis, also known as the giant cheetah.

They found that the vestibular system in cheetahs was the largest relative to body mass of any of the felid specimens examined. What’s more, the volume of the system compared with the entire inner ear was the largest in cheetahs than in the other species.

The authors also found that the differences in size and shape of the vestibular system in the tested felids was more significantly related to evolutionarily related species compared with ecological factors and body size. This suggests an evolutionary adaptation of the vestibular system in cheetahs related to their speed and hunting strategy.

Areas of the vestibular system associated with increased sensitivity to rotational head movements were more elongated in the cheetah specimens than in the other felids. The authors postulate that this difference in design has evolved specifically in cheetahs to enable rapid adjustment of visual gaze and posture during a high-speed hunt.

Interestingly, the evidence suggested that the A. pardinensis was already adapted to high speed hunts, but the similarities of the vestibular structure in this giant cheetah specimen to that of other early felids suggest that the adaptation in the modern cheetah is unique and quite recent.

Nidhi Sodhi
Science Writer

This article appeared in the Australian Veterinary Journal: Aust Vet J 2018;96(3):N18


  1.  Grohé  C, Lee B, Flynn JJ. Recent inner ear specialization for high-speed hunting in cheetahs. Sci Rep2018;8:2301.

     Privacy Policy  |  Disclaimer  |  Contact us