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SPEED DEMONS

Cheetah 

A cheetah surveys the scene.

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.

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. The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.By 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.



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