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Climate change may trigger fights among predators

AP – Cheetahs are usually daytime hunters, but the speedy big cats will shift their activity toward dawn and dusk hours during warmer weather, a new study finds.

Unfortunately for endangered cheetahs, that sets them up for more potential conflicts with mostly nocturnal competing predators such as lions and leopards, said the authors of a research published recently in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“Changing temperatures can impact the behaviour patterns of large carnivore species and also the dynamics among species,” said a study co-author and University of Washington biologist Briana Abrahms.

While cheetahs only eat fresh meat, lions and leopards will sometimes opportunistically scavenge from smaller predators.

“Lions and leopards normally kill prey themselves, but if they come across a cheetah’s kill, they will try to take it,” said a behavioural biologist who leads the Cheetah Research Project at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Bettina Wachter.

“The cheetahs will not fight the larger cats, they will just leave,” said Wachter, who is based in Namibia and was not involved in the study.

Hunting at different times of the day is one long-evolved strategy to reduce encounters between the multiple predator species that share northern Botswana’s mixed savannah and forest landscape.

A female cheetah and her cub sit watchfully in front of a herd of zebra in northern Botswana. PHOTO: AP

But the new study found that on the hottest days, when maximum daily temperatures soared to nearly 45 degrees Celsius, cheetahs became more nocturnal – increasing their overlapping hunting hours with rival big cats by 16 per cent.

“There’s a greater chance for more unfriendly encounters and less food for the cheetahs,” said co-author and a biologist at the University of Washington and the nonprofit Botswana Predator Conservation Trust Kasim Rafiq.

For the current study, researchers placed GPS tracking collars on 53 large carnivores – including cheetahs, lions, leopards and African wild dogs – and recorded their locations and hours of activity over eight years.

They compared this data with maximum daily temperature records.

While seasonal cycles explain most temperature fluctuations in the study window of 2011 to 2018, the scientists said the observed behaviour changes offer a peek into the future of a warming world.

In the next phase of research, the scientists plan to use audio-recording devices and accelerometers – “like a Fitbit for big cats”, said Rafiq – to document the frequency of encounters between large carnivores. In addition to competition with lions and leopards, cheetahs already face severe pressure from habitat fragmentation and conflict with humans.

The fastest land animal, cheetahs are the rarest big cat in Africa, with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild. “These climate changes could become really critical if we look into the future – it’s predicted to become much warmer in this part of Africa where cheetahs live, in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia,” said Wachter of the Cheetah Research Project.