An Inner-Ear Evolution Transformed Cheetahs Into High-Speed Hunting Machines, Says New Study

Monday, 05 February 2018 - 10:50AM
Monday, 05 February 2018 - 10:50AM
An Inner-Ear Evolution Transformed Cheetahs Into High-Speed Hunting Machines, Says New Study
< >
Image credit: YouTube
The cheetah is one of the most fascinatingly cool animals on the planet.

With a top sprinting speed of up to 60 miles per hour, this big cat has long since inhabited the public consciousness as the ultimate symbol of speed, power, and feline grace.

Apparently, according to a new study, this is all thanks to the cheetah's advanced inner-ear. While aerodynamics and muscle build certainly help the speedy cat to run as fast as possible, it seems that this is only possible because the cheetah has a tremendous sense of balance and spatial awareness, allowing it to keep track of distant prey while simultaneously running full pelt forward.

Because of its sense of balance, the cheetah is able to keep its head almost perfectly still while on the hunt, so that a single bump in the terrain doesn't cause it to break line of sight with its prey and lose track of where it's going.

According to Camille Grohé, of the American Museum of Natural History:

Opening quote
"The vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analyzed. These distinctive attributes (i.e., one of the greatest volumes of the vestibular system, dorsal extension of the anterior and posterior semicircular canals) correlate with a greater afferent sensitivity of the inner ear to head motions, facilitating postural and visual stability during high-speed prey pursuit and capture."
Closing quote

Apparently, cheetahs are able to achieve dizzying speeds while running because their inner ears are so sensitive that they can do what many humans wish were easier: staring intently at a single fixed point while simultaneously traveling at speed. Cheetahs' sense of balance is the envy of anyone who's ever tried to read a book or watch a movie while in the passenger seat of a car.

There's no word yet on whether this would make cheetahs more or less adapt at enjoying virtual reality without wanting to vomit, but we can only hope that scientists are raising funds for this experiment at present.

What's particularly interesting about this study is that it argues that cheetahs' advanced inner ears developed relatively recently. The researchers compared the cheetah to the now extinct species acinonyx pardinensis, and noted that only the cheetah possesses the sensitive balance necessary to travel at such speeds.

The logic behind this seems to be that heavy competition forced cheetahs to get really good at scanning the horizon for food. With a lot of different big animals vying for a piece of delicious animal flesh, cheetahs ended up inadvertently specializing in tracking food from a distance and then running in quickly to swipe a meal before anyone else knows what's going on.

It just goes to show that evolution is a weird process. Sometimes, "survival of the fittest" isn't as apt as "failure of the dizziest".
Science News