Cheetahs modify their prey handling behavior depending on risks from top predators

  • Anne Hilborn
  • Nathalie Pettorelli
  • Tim Caro
  • Marcella J. Kelly
  • M. Karen Laurenson
  • Sarah M. Durant
Original Article


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.


Predator-prey interactions Foraging behavior Behavioral flexibility Carnivore coexistence 



We are grateful to Tanzania National Parks and Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute for permission to collect data. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), and National Geographic Society provided funds. AH’s dissertation was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-1048542, a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant Award Number 1405491, P.E.O, and Virginia Tech. We are very grateful to Dennis Minja, Helen O’Neill, Laura Simpson, Sultana Bashir, John Shemakunde, and all other research assistants on the Serengeti Cheetah Project who helped collect data. Logistical support was provided by G. and M. Russell, B. Allen, O. Newman, A. Barrett, J. Jackson, J. Dreissen, A. Geertsma, P. and L. White, C. MacConnell and the staff at Ndutu Safari Lodge, M. Borner and others at FZS, as well as T. Mariki. AH thanks Ulrike Hilborn for data entry and general support and Ray Hilborn for help with R. We also thank Dr. Matt Hayward and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments.


AH’s dissertation was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-1048542, a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant Award Number 1405491, P.E.O, and GTAships from Virginia Tech.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they do not have conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

265_2018_2481_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (191 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 191 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anne Hilborn
    • 1
    • 2
  • Nathalie Pettorelli
    • 2
  • Tim Caro
    • 3
  • Marcella J. Kelly
    • 1
  • M. Karen Laurenson
    • 4
  • Sarah M. Durant
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Fish and Wildlife ConservationVirginia TechVirginiaUSA
  2. 2.Institute of ZoologyZoological Society of LondonLondonUK
  3. 3.Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaCaliforniaUSA
  4. 4.Frankfurt Zoological SocietyMpikaZambia

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