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Posts Tagged ‘cheetah’

kenya black-backed jackal

We think of interactions between predators as always antagonistic.  Meat is hard to come by, and if one comes by meat on the hoof, it is unlikely that the owner-operator of said flesh will give it up willingly.   Meat is a prized food source, and it is little wonder that most predators spend quite a bit of energy driving out competitors from hunting grounds.

Because of this antagonism, the domestication of wolves by ancient hunter-gatherers is difficult to explain. Indeed, the general way of getting wolves associated with people is see them as scavengers that gradually evolved to fear our species less.

This idea is pretty heavily promoted in the dog domestication literature, for it is difficult for experts to see how wolves could have been brought into the human fold any other way.

But there are still writers out there who posit a somewhat different course for dog domestication.  Their main contentions are that scavengers don’t typically endear themselves to those from which they are robbing, and further, the hunter-gatherers of the Pleistocene did not produce enough waste to maintain a scavenging population of wolves.

It is virtually impossible to recreate the conditions in which some wolves hooked up with people. With the exception of those living on the some the Queen Elizabeth Islands, every extant wolf population has been persecuted heavily by man. Wolves generally avoid people, and there has been a selection pressure through our centuries of heavy hunting for wolves to have extreme fear and reactivity. It is unlikely that the wolves that were first encountered on the Mammoth Steppe were shy and retiring creatures. They would have been like the unpersecuted wolves of Ellesmere, often approaching humans with bold curiosity.

As I have noted in an earlier post, those Ellesmere wolves are an important population that have important clues to how dog domestication might have happened, but the truth of the matter is that no analogous population of wolves or other wild canids exists in which cooperation with humans is a major part of the survival strategy. The wolves on Ellesmere are not fed by anyone, but they don’t rely upon people for anything.

But they are still curious about our species, and their behavior is so tantalizing. Yet it is missing that cooperative analogy that might help us understand more.

I’ve searched the literature for this analogy. I’ve come up short every time. The much-celebrated cooperation between American badgers and coyotes is still quite controversial, and most experts now don’t believe the two species cooperate.  Instead, they think the badger goes digging for ground squirrels, and the coyote stand outside the burrow entrance waiting for the prey to bolt out as the badger’s digging approaches its innermost hiding place in the den. The coyote gets the squirrel, and the badger wastes energy on its digging.

But there is a story that is hard to dispute. It has only been recorded once, but it is so tantalizing that I cannot ignore it.

Randall Eaton observed some rather unusual behavior between black-backed jackals and cheetahs in Nairobi National Park in 1966.

Both of these species do engage in cooperative hunting behavior. Black-backed jackals often work together to hunt gazelles and other small antelope, and they are well-known to work together to kill Cape fur seal pups on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Male cheetahs form coalitions that work together to defend territory and to hunt cooperatively.

However, the two species generally have a hostile relationship. Cheetahs do occasionally prey upon black-backed jackals, and black-backed jackals will often mob a cheetah after it has made a kill, in hopes of forcing the cat to abandon all that meat.

So these animals usually cannot stand each other, and their interactions are not roseate in the least. Eaton described the “normal interaction” as follows:

The normal interaction between these two predators occurs when the jackals hunt in the late afternoon and come into a group of cheetahs. The jackals, often four or five, are normally spread out over several hundred yards and maintain contact by barking as they move. When cheetahs are encountered by one of the jackals, it barks to the others and they all come to the cheetahs, sniffing the air as they approach apparently looking for a kill. If the cheetahs are not on a kill, the jackals search the immediate area looking for a carcass that might have just been left by the cheetahs. If nothing is found, they remain near the cheetahs for some time, following them as they move ; and when a kill is made the jackals feed on the leftover carcass. If the cheetahs have already fed and are inactive and if a carcass is not found nearby, the jackals move on.

However, Eaton discovered that one particular group of jackals and one female cheetah had developed a different strategy:

At the time I was there in November, 1966, one area of the park was often frequented by a female cheetah with four cubs and was also the territory of a pair of jackals with three pups. The jackal young remained at the den while the adults hunted either singly or together. Upon encountering the cheetah family, the jackals approached to about 20 yards and barked but were ignored except for an occasional chase by the cubs. The jackals ran back and forth barking between the cheetahs and a herd of Grant’s gazelles (Gazella granti) feeding nearby. The two jackals had gone on to hunt and were almost out of sight by the time the adult cheetah attacked two male Grant’s gazelles that had grazed away from the herd. The hunt was not successful. The jackals took notice of the chase and returned to look for a kill ; it appeared that they associated food with the presence of the cheetahs and perhaps with the chase.

One month later, while observing the same cheetah family, I noticed that the entire jackal family was hunting as a group. The cheetah and her cubs were about 300 yards from a herd of mixed species. This same herd had earlier spotted the cheetahs and given alarm calls. The adult cheetah was too far away for an attack,there was little or no stalking cover and the herd was aware of her presence. The cheetahs had been lying in the shade for about one-half an hour since the herd spotted them when the jackals arrived. Upon discovering the cheetahs lying under an Acacia tree, one of the adult jackals barked until the others were congregated around the cheetah family. The jackal that had found the cheetahs crawled to within ten feet of the adult cheetah which did not respond. The jackal then stood up and made a very pneumatic sound by forcing air out of the lungs in short staccato bursts. This same jackal turned towards the game herd, ran to it and, upon reaching it, ran back and forth barking. The individuals of the herd watched the jackal intently. The cheetah sat up and watched the herd as soon as it became preoccupied with the activity of the jackal. Then the cheetah quickly got up and ran at half-speed toward the herd, getting to within 100 yards before being seen by the herd. The prey animals then took flight while the cheetah pursued an impala at full speed.

Upon catching the impala and making the kill, the cheetah called to its cubs to come and eat. After the cheetahs had eaten their fill and moved away from the carcass, the waiting jackals then fed on the remains.

Eaton made several observations of this jackal family working with this female cheetah, and by his calculations, the cheetah was twice as successful when the jackals harassed the herds to aid her stalk.

Eaton made note of this behavior and speculated that this sort of cooperative hunting could have been what facilitated dog domestication:

If cheetah and jackal can learn to hunt mutually then it is to be expected that man’s presence for hundreds, of thousands of years in areas with scavenging canines would have led to cooperative hunting between the two. In fact, it is hard to believe otherwise. It is equally possible that it was man who scavenged the canid and thereby established a symbiosis. Perhaps this symbiosis facilitated the learning of effective social hunting by hominids. Selection may have favored just such an inter-specific cooperation.

Agriculture probably ended the importance of hunting as the binding force between man and dog and sponsored the more intensive artificial selection of breeds for various uses. It is possible that until this period men lived closely with canids that in fossil form are indistinguishable from wild stock (Zeuner, 1954).

Domestication may have occurred through both hunting symbiosis and agricultural life; however, a hunting relationship probably led to the first domestication. Fossil evidence may eventually reconstruct behavioral associations between early man and canids.

Wolves are much more social and much more skilled as cooperative hunters than black-backed jackals are. Humans have a complex language and a culture through which techniques and technology can be passed from generation to generation.

So it is possible that a hunting relationship between man and wolf in the Paleolithic could have been maintained over many generations.

The cheetah had no way of teaching her cubs to let the jackals aid their stalks, and one family of jackals is just not enough to create a population of cheetah assistants.

But humans and these unpersecuted Eurasian wolves of the Pleistocene certainly could create these conditions.

I imagine that the earliest wolf-assisted hunts went much like these jackal-cheetah hunts. Wolves are always testing prey to assess weakness. If a large deer species or wild horse is not weak, it will stand and confront the wolves, and in doing so, it would be exposing itself to a spear being thrown in its direction.

If you’ve ever tried a low-carbohydrate diet, you will know that your body will crave fat. Our brains require quite a bit of caloric intake from fat to keep us going, which is one of those very real costs of having such a large brain. Killing ungulates that stood to fight off wolves meant that would target healthy animals in the herds, and healthy animals have more fat for our big brains.

Thus, working together with wolves would give those humans an advantage, and the wolves would be able to get meat with less effort.

So maybe working together with these Ellesmere-like wolves that lived in Eurasia during the Paleolithic made us both more effective predators, and unlike with the cheetah and the black-backed jackals, human intelligence, language, and cultural transmission allowed this cooperation to go on over generations.

Eaton may have stumbled onto the secret of dog domestication. It takes more than the odd population of scavenging canids to lay the foundations for this unusual domestication. Human agency and foresight joined with the simple cooperative nature of the beasts to make it happen.

 

 

 

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bat-eared fox vs cheetah

As I noted in an earlier post, I am skeptical that the extinct North American “cheetahs” are the root cause of the pronghorn’s speed.  I am not alone in this skepticism, but my skepticism is rooted in the evasion strategy that pronghorns use. They flat-out run, whereas the antelope that are part of the true cheetah’s prey sources often use complex twisting and turning behavior to evade the swift cat. The pronghorn is a super long-distance runner, and its evasion strategy is more in keeping with a creature that was hunted by long-running dogs or perhaps the only hyena that ever existed on this continent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about cheetahs lately. A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of Nature on PBS in which the filmmakers were putting cameras on various animals. They put some cameras on some young cheetahs, and I was somewhat surprised at a species they seemed to like to target.  They were constantly harrying and harassing bat-eared foxes.

It was at that moment that two ideas I had in my head were connected.  I’d been toying around with writing something on this space about the Afrikaans name for the bat-eared fox, which is “draaijakkals.” The name means “turning jackal,” and the animal got this name because when a dog would get after one, it would start twisting and turning as it ran.  Now, this certainly would be the fox for sighthound enthusiasts to course.

But it really doesn’t need this skill to hunt its prey. In South Africa, it was believed they were a threat to lambs, but the truth is that 80-90 percent of their diet consists of one species of harvester termite, which don’t require much chasing.

Their running behavior is an evasion strategy, not a hunting strategy.

Why does this fox have such a gazelle-like evasion strategy? Well, I will engage in a bit of speculative zoology here:

The cheetah did it.

Cheetahs do not regularly target bat-eared foxes, but when they do, they are successful pretty often. Gus and Margaret Mills, who studied cheetahs in Kalahari, reported that cheetahs rarely hunt bat-eared foxes, but when they did, they managed to catch and kill their quarry 44.4 percent of the time. One emaciated cheetah queen, though, came to target bat-eared foxes as a major part of her diet.

Cheetahs are not migratory species, but many of their prey sources are.  And during times in which ungulates can’t be hunted, some of them could very well come to rely upon bat-eared foxes as their favored prey.

Although bat-eared foxes do derive from a basal lineage of vulpine foxes, the exact species first appeared in the fossil record 800,000 years ago.  And they evolvedin areas where cheetahs were present.

This little hypothesis has some problems. One of them is that cheetahs don’t often target bat-eared foxes, but we do know cheetahs will when they are unable to hunt ungulates.

But does cheetah predation on bat-eared foxes happen enough to have had that effect upon the canid’s evasion strategy?

I don’t know if we can answer that question, but it seems to me that the bat-eared foxes’ odd twisting and turning and doubling back behavior comes from cheetah predation as a selection pressure.

It is worth considering. Maybe I am way off, but I don’t know of any other canid that runs from predators in this fashion.

Or maybe it’s just another Just-So Story.

 

 

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This is my favorite zoo, BTW.

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Spotless cheetah.

From The Guardian:

A rare ‘spotless’ cheetah has been photographed in Kenya by wildlife photographer Guy Combes, who got within around 50m of the big cat.

Combes, originally from Dorset but now based in California, had heard tale of the spotless leopard and travelled to the Athi Kapiti Conservancy in search of it but gave up after days of fruitless searching.

“I didn’t think it likely that we would find the cheetah and went back to Nairobi. I then got a call saying it had been seen again so I spent another two days searching,” he said. Eventually he spotted the animal.

“I was really excited as we managed to get about 50 yards away. It was was a staggeringly beautiful animal. I didn’t expect to see it at all, the area we were going to search was 100,000 acres without borders and he could have easily been beyond that.”

John Pullen, curator of mammals at Marwell Wildlife in Hampshire, who has examined the photographs, described the sighting as “quite rare”. He said: “There are some spots still evident over the back area but most are missing. The spots or markings on all wild cats are in fact the skin colour and the hair growing from that part of the skin takes on the colouration, so if you shaved off the hair the pattern would be the same. This is really like a rare skin issue where something has happened to the genetic coding that would give the normal pattern.”

The cheetah is not spotless after all.

It just has far fewer spots than a n0rmal one!

Cheetahs come in three distinct morphs.

This spotless variety is not often seen. I’ve only read about them, and I assumed they were either urban legends or the result of the hit or miss captive breeding programs that existed for coursing cheetahs in India.

In addition to the spotted and spotless cheetahs, there are also king cheetahs, which are beautifully marbled.

For decades, king cheetahs were thought to be distinct species.  Then some were born to normal spotted cheetah parents. Two spotted queens mated with a wild spotted tom, and in both litters, there was a king cheetah kitten.

As inbred as cheetahs are, it is amazing how rare color morphs actually are. Nature had to have selected very strongly against unusual colors with cheetahs. A poorly colored cheetah might as well be one born with a severe birth defect. Cheetahs do need camouflage to stalk their prey, and although they don’t have to get as close to their prey as lions or leopards do, they need to be close enough that they can run it down before they exhaust themselves. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals, but they are sprinters. Even though they do have a lot of canine adaptations for running–like claws that don’t retract for use as running cleats– they aren’t designed to run down prey over great distances in the same way as African wild dogs or wolves.

Cheetahs are just weird animals all around.

They are the only representatives of the cougar lineage in the Old World. Indeed, one could make the case that cheetahs should join both jaguarundis and cougars in the genus Puma.

Male cheetahs hunt in groups, while females are solitary.

And because cheetahs are capable of cooperative hunting, they were used as super coursing “dogs” in different parts of their range.

In India, where cheetahs are currently extinct, they were regularly used to bring down blackbuck.

If they had been easier to breed in captivity, they might have very well become a domestic animal.

And then, sight hounds– the closest thing to a domestic cheetah– would have become useless.

***

Traditional accounts suggest that no one was able to breed cheetahs in captivity until relatively recently.

But it is possible that the odd one could have been bred in those coursing cheetah breeding programs.

It is also possible– and much more likely– that if any unusually colored cheetah kittens were discovered, they would have been captured and sold to a cheetah coursing enthusiast.

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A few days ago, I received this news in my inbox:  The chimp who played “Cheetah” in the Tarzan movies died on Christmas Eve at the age of 80.

I didn’t cover it for one really big reason.

I’ve never heard of chimp making it to 80. I’ve heard of them living into their 70’s. 80 is possible, but I would have thought that more notice would have been paid to Cheetah’s really advanced age.

Well, it turns out that there is no proof that the chimp that died on Christmas Eve was Cheetah.

From ABC News:

A Florida animal sanctuary says Cheetah, the chimpanzee sidekick in the Tarzan movies of the early 1930s, has died at 80. But other accounts call that claim into question.

Debbie Cobb, outreach director at the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor, said Wednesday that her grandparents acquired Cheetah around 1960 from “Tarzan” star Johnny Weissmuller and that the chimp appeared in Tarzan films between 1932 and 1934. During that period, Weissmuller made “Tarzan the Ape Man” and “Tarzan and His Mate.”

But Cobb offered no documentation, saying it was destroyed in a 1995 fire.

Also, some Hollywood accounts indicate a chimpanzee by the name of Jiggs or Mr. Jiggs played Cheetah alongside Weissmuller early on and died in 1938.

In addition, an 80-year-old chimpanzee would be extraordinarily old, perhaps the oldest ever known. According to many experts and Save the Chimps, another Florida sanctuary, chimpanzees in captivity generally live to between 40 and 60, though Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, Fla., says it has one that is around 73.

A similar claim about another chimpanzee that supposedly played second banana to Weissmuller was debunked in 2008 in a Washington Post story.

Writer R.D. Rosen discovered that the primate, which lived in Palm Springs, Calif., was born around 1960, meaning it wasn’t oldest enough to have been in the Tarzan movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age that starred Olympic swimming star Weissmuller as the vine-swinging, loincloth-wearing Ape Man and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.

While a number of chimpanzees played the sidekick role in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and ’40s, Rosen said in an email Wednesday that this latest purported Cheetah looks like a “business-boosting impostor as well.”

“I’m afraid any chimp who actually shared a soundstage with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan is long gone,” Rosen said.

Cobb said Cheetah died Dec. 24 of kidney failure and was cremated.

“Unfortunately, there was a fire in ’95 in which a lot of that documentation burned up,” Cobb said. “I’m 51 and I’ve known him for 51 years. My first remembrance of him coming here was when I was actually 5, and I’ve known him since then, and he was a full-grown chimp then.”

Film historian and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osbourne said the Cheetah character “was one of the things people loved about the Tarzan movies because he made people laugh. He was always a regular fun part of the movies.”

In his time, the Cheetah character was as popular as Rin Tin Tin or Asta, the dog from the “Thin Man” movies, Osbourne said.

“He was a major star,” he said.

At the animal sanctuary, Cheetah was outgoing, loved finger painting and liked to see people laugh, Cobb said. But he could also be ill-tempered. Cobb said that when the chimp didn’t like what was going on, he would fling feces and other objects.

Another reason why I was skeptical of the story is that the CNN reporting of the death claimed that Cheetah liked listening to contemporary Christian music.

Chimps are highly intelligent animals.

No intelligent animal would listen to that crap on purpose.

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I have embedded this video before, but I have not provided a good analysis of it.

These cheetahs were captured as adults and then socialized to people– something that is almost impossible to do with feral cats!

And then they are trained to attack the adult male blackbuck, which is the exact opposite of which animals a cheetah would target in the wild. Cheetahs are fast, but unlike leopards and pantherine cats, they don’t have as much brute strength that can be used to pull a large animal down. Instead, cheetahs often try to use one of the forepaws to trip the prey when they advance close enough to it. If the animal is tripped, the cheetah has a chance of running fast enough to get to its neck before it has chance to get up.

When you see these cheetahs grab adult male blackbuck, it is going against what it normally would do, for it is obvious that a cheetah has a very hard time bringing down such powerful prey.  Their canine teeth aren’t as large as those of other cats, so  it takes them several minutes to kill their prey. If the prey is big and healthy, it could easily injure the cheetah as it is making its killing bite.

The cheetahs have to have a certain amount of trust that their handlers will advance upon the downed blackbuck and kill it. Otherwise, it would be very likely that the downed blackbuck could injure the cheetah in its death throes.

The cheetahs are rewarded with food. They are given a ladle of blood if they are needed for more coursing, but if their day is over, they are given a portion of the kill. One does not see any compulsory training or harsh handling of the cheetahs in this film. The animals appear to be bonded to their handlers, and they are working cooperatively.

And this does have some basis in the natural world.

Male cheetahs often band together to take larger prey than they would be able to kill as individuals. The females hunt on their own, which sounds pretty weird. A female cheetah with young would have a greater need for lots of fresh meat that could more easily be procured through cooperative hunting, but they simply don’t do it.

So cheetahs do have some amount of cooperative hunting as part of their natural repertoire of behaviors, which is why they could be used as coursing animals.

But then question becomes “Why weren’t cheetahs domesticated?”

They have all the traits that would make a good domestic animal. They are readily tamed and made docile– so docile that they allow hunters to put hoods over their heads while they are holding their prey in their jaws.

But no cheetah courser ever bred enough cheetahs in captivity to maintain a population large enough for any kind of selective breeding. Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, and modern zoos were not able to produce a live cheetah birth until 1960. People have been trying to breed coursing cheetahs since time of the Ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, and although they might have produced a cub here and there- they were largely unsuccessful in their endeavors.

The Indian nobles were never able to breed cheetahs, even when they devoted great resources to the project. One noble kept a thousand cheetahs, and he tried virtually every technique he could imagine to produce cubs. He failed miserably.

This inability to reproduce has traditionally been blamed upon the fact that cheetahs are quite inbred. It is estimated that their worldwide population was reduced to 7 individuals 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, which is bad enough, and in the past 150 years, cheetahs have experienced a massive population collapse. Their entire Asian range has been reduced to some isolated pockets in Iran, and their range in Africa has been greatly fragmented. So they were already quite inbred from natural causes, and it has been made worse through hunting and habitat destruction.

Male cheetahs do have low sperm counts. More than 75 percent of male cheetah sperm is malformed, but this doesn’t stop cheetahs in the wild from reproducing. It turns out that the reason why cheetahs have such a hard time reproducing is that they have an elaborate courtship ritual. Male cheetahs, which band together as previously mentioned, chase the female when she is estrus. They chase her for several days, and this activity stimulates her into ovulation. In captivity, male cheetahs were never really given this opportunity, and most would-be cheetah domesticators wouldn’t have the space or the understanding to get this mating ritual correct.

And if one has to allow cheetahs their courtship chase, it soon becomes obvious.

If you can breed coursing dogs in the basement, why would you ever breed cheetahs?

The coursing dog might not be as fast as the cheetah, but it’s pretty darn close to the cheetah in its conformation and utility. And it is very easy to breed.  It requires almost no knowledge to get them to breed. Just make sure you have a male and a female.

And if they are easy to breed, then you can produce lots of offspring from which one can selectively breed.

Cheetahs don’t have that utility.

As much as I enjoy watching this cheetah coursing clip and thinking of what might have happened had we had some better understanding of cheetah reproduction, I know that the cheetah simply was not going to become a domestic animal. I don’t know how this species would have withstood all the intense selection that is necessary for domestication.  Although these animals are readily tamed, there would always be a desire to breed a cheetah that was even tamer, and with an animal with such finite genetic diversity, it is unlikely that captive strains would have been viable in the long term.

It’s just one of those animals that appears to have been the ideal hunting partner, but its natural history precluded it from ever reaching this status.

***

I am unfamiliar with the dietary strictures for Muslims regarding the animals that cheetahs catch, but I have come across the strictures for those that a dog catches. Are these rules the same for cheetahs?

I’m just curious, for it might explain why cheetahs were preferred over dogs in some cultures.

***

This video says “India,” but at the time, India was a British possession that included the country we call India today and the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. This footage could have easily been taken in what is now Pakistan, and considering the religion of the hunters, it probably was.

***

Oh. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it:

Cheetahs are returning to India!

They aren’t going to be used to course blackbuck.

They might be coursing blackbuck, but they will be doing it on their own as native Indian wildlife.

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Source.

Also check out the Caniformia video to see how the whole order Carnivora evolved from common ancestors that looked like genets or genet/fox hybrids.

He mislabels a few species- snow leopards, clouded leopards, and the ocelot.

And at least one Pantherine cat has hybridized with a “small” cat. The cougar and leopard have produced “pumapards.” Also, modern cheetahs evolved in the Old World, but they do share common ancestry with cougars and jaguarundis. The ancestral cheetah entered the Old World, but it was more like a cougar than a cheetah. However, there were North American cheetahs, but they were more closely related modern cougars and jaguarundis than Old World cheetahs.  The cougar cats have evolved cheetah-like characteristics twice: once in the Old World and once in the New World. The New World “cheetahs” evolved first, but they are not ancestral to the Old World cheetah species.

Despite these little quibbles, this is an excellent video, and it should be watched with the Caniformia video to really understand how dogs, cats, and other Carnivora species evolved.

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