A Life in the Wild | Capturing
Character | Speed Demons | Serengeti
Photo Safari | Resources
On the grassy plains of the Serengeti, there is plenty of wildlife to
occupy a filmmaker for a lifetime, from roaring lions to stampeding elephants.
But there is one great cat whose reputation has been especially enhanced
by its on-screen time: the cheetah. It is the fastest land animal in the
world, accelerating up to 71 miles per hour to capture its prey. But these
bursts of speed are usually over in the blink of an eye -- cheetahs can
only run at top speed for about a quarter of a mile before tiring. Researchers
who longed to understand how the great cats go from zero to 60 in a split
second were at a loss: filming a chase would have allowed them to study
it at length, but the limitations of early movie cameras made this virtually
impossible. Researchers were reduced to waiting weeks in the wild in hopes
of witnessing a hunt.
A cheetah surveys the scene.
Today, however, the high-speed, high-resolution cameras used by cinematographers
like Hugo van Lawick have changed everything. As SERENGETI STORIES shows,
filmmakers can now record every detail of a cheetah chase, from start
to finish, by working from movable platforms such as Land Rovers. Indeed,
in the hands of a talented movie maker, a 20-second cheetah chase shown
in slow motion can take on the feeling of an epic ballet, with the fanged
hunter and its hoofed prey performing leaps and swerves to make the
most accomplished dancer envious. Not surprisingly, these acrobatic
chases have become a favorite of TV viewers everywhere.
To scientists, however, the filmed chases are more than just entertainment.
examining them frame by frame, they've been able to better understand
the physical adaptations that make the cheetah -- and its primary
prey, the gazelle -- so fast. For instance, on film it is easy to see
that the cat's long, graceful tail becomes a sort of rudder, helping
the hunter turn on a dime and maintain its balance. Similarly, scientists
using sophisticated computer software combined with filmed images have
been able to analyze just how a cheetah's spine works as a powerful
spring, giving the animal's back legs an extra bit of power with every
thrust. Indeed, the cat's backbone is one of the most remarkable structures
in the animal world, an unusual combination of strength and flexibility
that human engineers are hard pressed to beat.
Scientists aren't the only ones to have benefited from cheetah footage,
however: the cats themselves have also gained something. That's because
as people have learned more about the cheetah -- often through films
like those made by Hugo van Lawick -- international support for protecting
the endangered cat has grown. Biologists believe less than 12,000 cheetahs
survive in the wild, down from double that number just a few decades
ago. In recent years, however, African nations have made greater efforts
to set aside the large territories the cats need to hunt. The conservationists
want to make sure that people will always be able to see the spotted
cats in their native territories -- and not just in zoos or on television.
A Life in the Wild
| Capturing Character
| Speed Demons | Serengeti Photo Safari
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