Sunday, August 21, 2011
The spotted ones are coming to dinner
Soon the fastest running mammal will be roaming
. This will be a significant step in returning the region to a balanced system. The grazers and browsers continue to build the lower part of the Gorongosa food pyramid for the soon to be released carnivores. Gorongosa National Park
How did this animal become so fast? It is good question to ask a beginning biology class. The question prompts a variety of misconceptions around evolution by natural selection. "The cheetahs learned to run faster over time" one student might respond. Or "They ran faster because they needed to catch the small fast antelope." Genetic variation is usually the concept that is overlooked. The fact that some ancestral cheetahs might have had the ability to run slightly faster than others. Then there is the adaptation and the fact that not all survive to reproduce. Yes, the speed enhances the ability to get food and survive. Finally, the genetic link to future cheetahs. Those enhanced survivors pass on their genes for speed. Of course it helps to conceptualize the timescale of millions of years and the fact that this increase in speed is not happening over several generations but hundreds of thousands of generations. Hence, the cheetah is a fine model for introducing natural selection. It is also a fine specimen for reintroducing top predators into this recovering ecosystem in order to bring it back to its previous balance.
The cheetahs we observed in the enclosures near Explore Gorongosa had been transported from
weeks prior. There were two holding pens dividing the animals. Two brothers were in the larger enclosure and were clearly very compatible. We observed them sleeping together, laying on top of each other, and frolicking together. This is common between male cheetahs. Males which are brought together from distant areas will often develop tight bonds together. Brothers will typically remain together for their entire life. South Africa
The female cheetahs are a different story. The one we observed was clearly more aggressive and showed us her well developed teeth on our first encounter. She then slowly strolled across her enclosure with a beautiful smooth gait with raised shoulders going for cover after giving us her warning. Good to see the wild side - it is comforting for the pending release. Best of luck to the local African hares, rodents and young impala.