How Evolution Turned Lions and Cheetahs Into Such Formidable Killing Machines

When we see a large cat capturing its prey on the African savannah, we’re literally watching millions of years of evolution in action. But these attacks don’t always end in a meal, as “survival of the fittest” sometimes means the target gets to make a daring escape. New research uncovers the athleticism involved in these predator-prey encounters, and the best strategies for capturing prey—or avoiding being eaten.

“The fastest and most maneuverable terrestrial animals are found in savannah habitats, where predators chase and capture running prey,” opens a new study published today in Nature. Without a doubt, these animals are the product of seemingly endless arms race, where each evolutionary adaptation is countered by another. But there’s a limit to these apparent advantages. If a predator gets too big or muscular, it may exhaust itself too quickly during the chase. Same goes for the prey. Evolution tends to favor an equilibrium point between predator and prey—a kind of “goldilocks zone” of physicality that constrains species in some specific and important ways.

A collared cheetah tracked for the study.

 

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