A study from the Royal Veterinary College in the UK takes us to the plains of Africa, where a team studied the athleticism of predator and prey. They put biometric collars on five cheetahs, seven impala, nine lions, and seven zebras. Since the original paper is behind a paywall, we don't know exactly how they managed to do that, but it would have been interesting to see ("Here, kitty, kitty!"). The collars recorded the speed and acceleration of each animal during a chase. They recorded data from 5,562 chase incidents, none of them involving two animals that both wore collars. But they got some interesting findings. Believe it or not, it's to the prey's advantage to keep the speed down.
As the new study notes, the prey animal establishes the speed and route taken during the chase, but it’s the predator’s job to upset that strategy. Lions and cheetahs actually like it when their prey tries to beat them in a flat-out race. At full tilt, a prey’s movement becomes predictable—it can’t speed up any further, or make quick turns. Predators also tend to be faster than their prey. But if the prey animal runs slowly, it has more options, like twists and turns to make its movements less predictable. Incredibly, prey animals move at about half of their maximum capable speed during a chase. Predators, meanwhile, are always running faster than their prey, trying to close the gap. But when their prey makes an evasive maneuver, they have to slow down to follow the twists and turns of their target.
Using computer models, the researchers confirmed that lower speed wasn’t a terrible disadvantage for prey, and that the best escape strategy is to turn at the last possible moment, taking a path the predator couldn’t possibly follow. Ironically, the faster the predator is going, the better it is for the prey—even if it’s caught. An exhausted predator may not be able to hold onto its prey.