We finally have an accurate measurement of a cheetah's top speed

For years, the top speed of the world's fastest land animal has been listed as 64 miles per hour – but that record is based on a single measurement, taken all the way back in the 1960s. So researchers flew to Botswana, where they outfitted wild cheetahs with motion- and acceleration-tracking collars. After measuring hundreds of runs, the researchers had a new top speed.

And that speed is actually slower than the previous record. How much slower? Well... not much. And, in fact, the fastest cat in this most recent study had its speed recorded while coursing its prey through vegetation, so there's that to consider, as well. Ed Yong has the details on this fascinating study (published in today's issue of Nature) in his latest piece for Phenomenon:

[Professor of locomotor biomechanics Alan Wilson] recorded a total of 367 runs, of which a quarter ended in a kill. There were many surprises. Wildlife documentaries typically show these cats hunting during the day in open grassland. But Wilson’s individuals were hunting day and night. They also made half their runs among shrubs or thick vegetation, and were actually more successful in thicker cover.

The collars cemented the cats’ speedy reputation. The fastest individual, appropriately named Ferrari, hit a top speed of 59 mph, very close to the reported 64 mph maximum. And while that old measurement was taken on a flat, track-like surface, Ferrari was running through vegetation.

As this brief excerpt suggests, Wilson and his team learned much, much more about these animals than their top speed. Their findings – which demonstrate that cheetahs rarely run at full tilt (average top speed was just 33 mph to preserve, the researchers hypothesize, maneuverability) – add to our understanding of everything from cheetahs' hunting tactics to their biomechanics to their bone composition. For all the details, check out Yong's piece over at Phenomena. To read the research in full, head to Nature.

Top image via Shutterstock