Specific trees and large rocks in Africa are like bars for male cheetahs, new research reveals. The big cats use these places to find mates and send signals to other males, effectively making them communication hubs for their species. They may also be key to saving the animals from angry farmers, the study suggests.
“Hats off to them!” Tim Caro, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bristol, says of the researchers’ work. The study shows the importance of understanding the behavior of wild animals before making conservation management decisions, he notes.
Caro’s earlier research served as a starting point for the cheetah study. In the 1980s, he discovered that the big cats have a unique social system among mammals: Solitary females range over huge areas that encompass the smaller territories held by males. Competition among males for their domains is fierce, and they often form coalitions with one or two unrelated males to defend their land. Males without territories (called floaters) roam around looking to take over one of these holdings.
Caro also noted that the male cats had distinct locations, typically a tree or large rock, they regularly marked with their scents. In the new study, scientists led by Joerg Melzheimer, a spatial ecologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, realized something important was afoot at these locales.
Between 2007 and 2018, Melzheimer and colleagues attached radio collars to 106 adult cheetahs living in central Namibia on nearly 11,000 square kilometers of cattle ranches. Territorial males spent half their time at these trees or rocks, marking them frequently with urine, the team found. Meanwhile, floaters visited the sites regularly, but only stopped by to sniff. Females also occasionally checked in, leaving their mark when in estrus. Each such site was typically found in the center of a male’s territory and functioned “like a popular bar, where you might have a better chance of finding mating partners,” Melzheimer says.
These hubs were stable over time. Even when new males took over a territory, they used the same scent-marking location as the previous owners.
That could be important from a conservation standpoint. Like most big cats, cheetahs are facing a perilous future. Habitat loss, dwindling prey, and conflicts with people have halved their numbers from 14,000 in 1975 to about 7000 today. Most are now found in eastern and southern Africa on farmlands outside of protected areas; the Asiatic cheetah is nearly extinct.
Although cheetahs aren’t known as major livestock killers, they will hunt young calves, particularly if they can’t find their own wild prey—antelope, gazelles, impalas, and warthogs. In Namibia and elsewhere, farmers kill cheetahs either preemptively or in retaliation for attacking their livestock or game animals. Such farm-related killings are considered the main threat to cheetahs.
Melzheimer’s team collaborated with 35 farmers who had lost stock to cheetahs. Of these, six had a cheetah communication hub on their land, and well-documented cheetah attacks. Melzheimer thought the information the cheetahs gathered at these sites was so important, the cats would not follow the livestock if farmers moved their animals elsewhere. Although the six farmers were skeptical, they agreed to move their herds with suckling calves to areas away from these hubs. The number of calves subsequently lost to predation by cheetahs decreased by 86% on average, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
That’s an “astounding” drop, says Maximilian Allen, a carnivore ecologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study. “It seems these findings can be applied in any areas where cheetahs overlap with agriculture and livestock.”
Melzheimer concurs. “We’ve discovered there aren’t ‘problem animals,’” he says, but “‘problem areas.’” He adds that “every farmer [in this part of Namibia] who has a communication hub is now implementing our advice,” and that additional farmers in the country are participating in the research.
Other cats have different social structures and hubs, so the study won’t directly help them. But the work does suggest a new way to think about human-wildlife conflicts—something “definitely worth exploring,” Allen says.
*Correction, 8 December, 10:15 a.m.: This article has been changed to reflect the fact that all felines, wild or domestic, mark their territories; they do so differently, though, from cheetahs.