Pilot Whales Are "Cheetahs of the Sea," Study Finds

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Aguilar assumed the situation would be similar among short-finned pilot whales.

The whales' high-speed chases have not been observed in any other deep-diving mammals.

But the behavior is not entirely unique. On land, cheetahs invest massive amounts of energy sprinting after a single prey.

The researchers suggest that the pilot whales are exhibiting the same behavior.

The suggestion is surprising, because until now the dominant predators of the deep were thought to be those that would use the dark waters to ambush their prey, as jaguars do when pouncing from behind foliage in the jungle.

"Jungles are excellent for ambushing prey. Plains are perfect for pursuit predation," Aguilar said.

"It would seem that for whales using sonar, the deep sea is like a plain, but for other animals the dark water is like a jungle. If this is true, it is a unique combination of both environments rolled into one."

The Mysterious Fathoms Below

Patrick Miller, a marine biologist at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, was not involved in the study.

"This is an important finding that reveals a previously undescribed foraging strategy in a deep-diving whale," he said.

"I think they are on to something there about echolocation [using sonar to locate prey] turning a jungle into a savanna."

Steve Thompson, a behavioral ecologist at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, was also not part of Aguilar's research team.

He said the sprinting, or "bursting," behavior observed in the pilot whales seemed significant.

"I'm guessing that these whales burst because they are specializing on [hunting] something that moves really quickly—large squid perhaps—when they get close to them," Thompson said.

"What's interesting," he said, "is that other [whale] species don't burst too, or at least they have not been detected doing so yet," he added.

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