Cheetahs are successful hunters, not just because of their blinding speed, but because of a special organ inside their ear, according to new research in the journal Scientific Reports.
While cheetahs are known for their ability to outrun prey, they can also sprint without moving their head. That helps them track as they chase, a unique trait that comes from their evolved inner ear. This discovery — made by researchers at the American Museum of Natural History — sheds new light on the species and gives insight into how they changed over time.
In the study, the team took a look at the big cat’s inner ear, which is composed of a series of sensory organs linked to hearing and balance. After scanning the heads of 21 specimens, researchers found that, not only are cheetahs’ inner ears different from other felids alive today, but, as the unique organs were not present in the now-extinct Acinonyx pardinensis, they also evolved quite recently.
“The vestibular system of modern cheetahs is extremely different in shape and proportions relative to other cats analyzed,” the team wrote in their study, according to Tech Times. “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.”
This finding is important because it gives new insight into how cheetahs became such efficient predators. Many animals are fast, but the control over balance could give the cats an edge other hunters lack. While the team is not sure, they think such efficiency came about as a result of needing to out-hunt other big cats.