To flee or not to flee: predator avoidance by cheetahs at kills

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Mammalian carnivores are unusual because their primary competitors for food are often their primary predators. This relationship is most evident at persistent kills where dominant competitors are attracted to both the carcass (as a free meal) and to the killers (as potential prey). Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are frequent victims of kleptoparasitism, and cubs, and sometimes adults, are killed by lions (Panthera leo) or spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta). Between 1980 and 2002, we observed 639 kills made by cheetahs in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. These kills were often visited by scavengers, including relatively innocuous species such as vultures and jackals and potentially dangerous species, like spotted hyenas and lions. We used cheetah behavior at kills to test a number of predictions about how cheetahs should minimize risk at kill sites given they face an increased risk of predation of themselves or their cubs. In particular, we examined the propensity of cheetahs of different age/sex classes to hide carcasses after making a kill, vigilance at kills, and the delay in leaving after finishing feeding with respect to ecological factors and scavenger presence. The behavior of single females at kills did not suggest that they were trying to avoid being killed, but the behavior of males, often found in groups, was in line with this hypothesis. In contrast, the behavior of mother cheetahs at kills appeared to be influenced greatly by the risk of cubs being killed. Our results suggest that cheetahs use several behavioral counterstrategies to avoid interspecific predation of self or cubs.

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