Photo: Harvey Barrison / Flickr

By Dr. Laurie Marker

Large distinct trees in the Namibian landscape that are frequented and scent-marked by cheetahs are referred to by local farmers as “playtrees” or “newspaper” trees. Historically, farmers set cage traps near these trees to catch cheetahs, which is one of the reasons it’s important to learn more about them.

These “newspaper” trees, where cheetahs leave their markings in their large home ranges, help individual cheetahs share their story with other cheetahs through the scents they leave behind. Researchers knew that some trees were visited more frequently by cheetahs than others, but it was not fully understood what made a particular tree more favorable. So, Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) researchers set out to gather more information about these trees, hoping to gain insight into this behavior and to better understand what makes the perfect playtree.

Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund

Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund

It turns out that the perfect cheetah playtree is one that is visually obvious across the landscape. These preferred trees are taller, have large canopies and are sturdy enough to climb. Because cheetahs are not good climbers like other cats (they look like a dog in a tree), the limbs need to be at an angle that can support their bodies. Cheetahs use the trees to gain elevation so they can better see the surrounding area, most of which is thick bush. The visibility appears to be an essential feature that cheetahs use to determine which trees to use as scent posts, therefore communicating to other cheetahs that this area is a part of their territory.

A cheetah playtree in Namibia. (Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund)

A cheetah playtree in Namibia. (Photo: Cheetah Conservation Fund)

By studying these highly visible landscape features, we have gained a glimpse into what makes a particular playtree a cheetah favorite. We believe that these new details can help us further our understanding of cheetah scent-marking behaviors and shed light on how scent-marking influences territorial positioning among individual cheetahs that have overlapping home ranges. We’ll continue to acquire additional knowledge about how free-ranging cheetahs utilize their huge home ranges so that we can continue to improve our conservation approaches.

Fun Feline Fact: The smirking or grinning behavior observed when cats detect an odor is called the Flehmen response. The animal lifts its top lip and extends its neck to expose a small sensory organ housed above their nasal cavity to a variety of pheromones and other chemical cues often found in urine or feces.

This post originally appeared on the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s blog.

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