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Why Cheetah Researchers Spend A Lot Of Time Sneaking Up On Bushes

For some wildlife biologists, daily research begins with figuring out what that dot is.

For some wildlife biologists, daily research begins with figuring out what that dot is. (Photo: Anne Hilborn)

Look closely at the above picture. Halfway between the foreground and the horizon, tucked into the waving grass, is something. It’s still, and shadowy, and vaguely pointy, but has very few other discernible characteristics. Go ahead and zoom in if you want.

Ok, got it? Quiz time. Is that a cheetah–or not?

A definite cheetah, and the fruit of a lot of horizon-scanning.

A definite cheetah, and the fruit of a lot of horizon-scanning. (Photo: Anne Hilborn)

Even among the always-enigmatic big cats, cheetahs are particularly mysterious creatures. We’re not 100 percent clear on the nuances of how they breed and how they fit into their environments. Researchers are trying to figure out how these very endangered animals live their lives so they can develop better conservation plans.

But in order to even begin addressing these larger questions, your average cheetah researcher spends much of her workday guessing what is or isn’t a big cat, says ecologist Anne Hilborn. “In Serengeti, we don’t have any cheetahs that are collared, so we basically have to go out and find them by eye,” she explained in a phone interview, “Sometimes they’re just sitting there on a termite mound by the road looking really photogenic, but most of the time it involves hours and hours, and sometimes days, of driving around.”

Classic cheetah shape–a small triangle on top of a large one.

Classic cheetah shape–a small triangle on top of a large one. (Photo: Anne Hilborn)

Hilborn was a research assistant with the Serengeti Cheetah Project from 2004 to 2007, and returned to the park in 2014 to collect data for her own projects. Over her long tenure, she has developed several tricks to maximize her cheetah-spotting chances–getting up at dawn before the heat makes everything hazy, looking out for clumps of staring tourists or hyper-alert gazelles, and scanning for particular shapes. From far away, “when cheetahs are sitting down, they sort of look like an upside-down triangle with a really tiny upside-down triangle on top of it,” she says. 

Even this distinct silhouette is no guarantee. Hilborn has been fooled by stumps, bushes, clumps of grass, leopards, Kori bustards, and “any of the millions of [other] things that you wouldn’t think looked like a cheetah, but actually does.” Termite mounds are particularly tricky:

(The Unidentified Field Object at the top, by the way, did not turn out to be a cheetah. It was a bush.)

If it is, indeed, a cheetah, the search is not over. Step two involves using spot- and scar-based identification to figure out exactly which individual has graced you with her presence, in order to get a sense of her day to day activities. Step three, in many cases, means collecting cat scat–a whole separate search-and-gather procedure that involves further patience (“it’s really hard to predict when a cheetah is going to poop”), and sometimes, if things are really dire, getting out of the Land Rover and sniffing.

Hilborn is the current steward of the @realscientists Twitter feed, where, along with hosting games of Cheetah or Not, she is regaling readers with harrowing tales of elephant-adjacent scat collection and hyena reproduction. Luckily for desk-chair biologists, she has provided a number of signs for easy identification: try the #ratemylion and #cheetahface hashtags for great close-ups of those research subjects she did manage to track down.

Naturecultures is a weekly column that explores the changing relationships between humanity and wilder things. Have something you want covered (or uncovered)? Send tips to [email protected].