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To flee or not to flee: predator avoidance by cheetahs at kills

Abstract

Mammalian carnivores are unusual because their primary competitors for food are often their primary predators. This relationship is most evident at persistent kills where dominant competitors are attracted to both the carcass (as a free meal) and to the killers (as potential prey). Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are frequent victims of kleptoparasitism, and cubs, and sometimes adults, are killed by lions (Panthera leo) or spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Between 1980 and 2002, we observed 639 kills made by cheetahs in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. These kills were often visited by scavengers, including relatively innocuous species such as vultures and jackals and potentially dangerous species, like spotted hyenas and lions. We used cheetah behavior at kills to test a number of predictions about how cheetahs should minimize risk at kill sites given they face an increased risk of predation of themselves or their cubs. In particular, we examined the propensity of cheetahs of different age/sex classes to hide carcasses after making a kill, vigilance at kills, and the delay in leaving after finishing feeding with respect to ecological factors and scavenger presence. The behavior of single females at kills did not suggest that they were trying to avoid being killed, but the behavior of males, often found in groups, was in line with this hypothesis. In contrast, the behavior of mother cheetahs at kills appeared to be influenced greatly by the risk of cubs being killed. Our results suggest that cheetahs use several behavioral counterstrategies to avoid interspecific predation of self or cubs.

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Acknowledgment

We thank the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology, Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, and Tanzania National Parks for permission. We thank Lindsay Turnbull, Isla Graham, Jos Milner, Jane Wisbey, Ian and Ghislaine Sayers, John Shemkunde, and Sultana Bashir for help with data collection. Funding was provided to JSH by the National Science Foundation and the University of California, to SMD by Wildlife Conservation Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society, National Geographic Society, Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, the Howard Buffett Foundation and the Times Christmas Appeal 1998, and to TMC by the Royal Society and the National Geographic Society. SMD is grateful to everyone at SWRC, SENAPA, the late Hugo van Lawick and his team, Frankfurt Zoological Society, Greg and Maria Russell, and Ndutu lodge for logistical support during fieldwork. This study was conducted in full compliance with the laws and regulations governing scientific study in Tanzania.

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Correspondence to J. S. Hunter.

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Communicated by T. Bakker

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Hunter, J.S., Durant, S.M. & Caro, T.M. To flee or not to flee: predator avoidance by cheetahs at kills. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 61, 1033–1042 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-006-0336-4

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Keywords

  • Predator avoidance
  • Interspecific competition
  • Intraguild predation
  • Kleptoparasitism