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Cheetah inner ear is 1-of-a-kind, vital to high-speed hunting

The world's fastest land animal, the cheetah, is a successful hunter not only because it is quick, but also because it can hold an incredibly still gaze while pursuing prey. For the first time, researchers have investigated the cheetah's extraordinary sensory abilities by analyzing the speedy animal's inner ear, an organ that is essential for maintaining body balance and adapting head posture during movement in most vertebrates. The study finds that the inner ear of modern cheetahs is unique and likely evolved relatively recently. "Until now, no one has investigated the inner ear's role in this incredible hunting specialization," the lead researcher said. The researchers used high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) to scan the skulls of 21 specimens from the felid family of cats, including seven modern cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) from distinct populations, a closely related extinct cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis) that lived in the Pleistocene between about 2.6 million and 126,000 years ago, and more than a dozen other living felid species. They found that the inner ears of living cheetahs differ markedly from those of all other felids alive today, with a greater overall volume of the vestibular system and longer anterior and posterior semicircular canals.

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