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A predator is any animal that hunts and eats other animals, which are called the prey. Generally, carnivores are predators and herbivores are prey. Predators have adaptations to catch, kill, and eat their prey, and, in return, the prey have special adaptations to avoid being eaten.

Predators play an important role in nature. Many scientists believe they help keep the populations of their prey from getting too large and using up more food and other resources than their habitat can provide. To be successful hunters, predators need to be able to see, smell, or hear their prey. 

Predators need feet and legs adapted to running down (pursuing) their prey or to sneaking up on them. Predators need powerful teeth and jaws to kill and eat their prey; many have sharp claws to help catch the prey. Predators do not chew their food but tear it off the bones and swallow it whole.

Good eyesight is important to help predators in locating food. Predators generally have both eyes in front of their heads, so that they are looking forward, which gives the animal binocular vision. Binocular vision permits an animal to judge the distance of an object accurately. This is important when a predator is trying to leap at or run down an animal. Cheetahs and hawks, for example, have binocular vision. (People also have binocular vision, as do other primates and climbing mammals, because arboreal animals need to be able to judge distances between tree limbs for jumping and swinging. Scientists believe that early ancestors of people were tree-dwellers.)

Newborn young of predators are usually altricial (helpless) and depend on their mothers for care. The young are hidden in rock cavities, thickets, and holes; and in the case of lions, cared for by the entire pride (family group). In contrast, the babies of prey animals are generally precocial; soon after birth they are able to get up and run. This is important, because the newborn herbivores are often hunted as food by predators. Baby zebra and wildebeest can stand up and follow the herd only a few hours after birth. The large herbivores of the savanna usually bear only one young, rarely two; in contrast, lions, leopards, and cheetahs can have one to six young, though two to three is normal.

Predators hunt to feed their young and in turn teach them how to hunt. It takes a lot of practice to become a good hunter. Predators hunt their prey in three ways: stalking, chasing the prey down, and attacking in a pack. Some predators, such as the lion and leopard, stalk their prey. They can outrun their prey only over a short distance. They first get close to the prey, moving quietly and staying low to the ground, hiding in the vegetation. When they are very close, they leap and ambush the prey. Lean, long-legged cheetahs first stalk their prey, but then outrun them and chase them down, running at speeds of up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) per hour for limited distances of up to 400 yards (366 meters). Some predators, especially smaller ones, such as hyenas and wild dogs, hunt in groups. When a prey animal is sighted, the hunting pack chases it down and the meat from the animal is shared. The advantage of hunting in packs is that different pack members can take turns in chasing the prey at high speed - expending the prey's energy but conserving that of the individual members of the pack. Animals that hunt in packs must work together to be successful.

Insect predators have a number of modifications that allow them to catch their food. Some, like praying mantids, have enlarged, grasping forelegs that lock their victims in a crushing, inescapable embrace. Others, like hunting wasps, have powerful stings used to inject venom that paralyzes or kills their prey. Still others, such as predatory bugs, inject a powerful saliva into their victims that contains both venom and digestive enzymes, allowing the bug to suck out the pre-digested body contents of their prey.

There are many more herbivores than carnivores within any community in nature. Carnivores are at the top of a food pyramid that starts with green plants. Green plants use the sun's energy to manufacture nutrients to make and sustain plant tissue. Animals get their energy by eating plants or by eating the animals that eat plants. Not all the energy that enters a plant or animal is available for the animal that eats it. Organisms burn energy when they move and breathe; so only a small portion of the energy taken in is used to make new tissue. Therefore each level in a food pyramid usually contains fewer individuals than the level below it. It takes many, many blades of grass to support a Thomson's gazelle and many gazelle to support a lion. Big, fierce predators are rare in the wild.

Predators are very important in the balance of nature, usually hunting only the sick or weak members of a herd. This leaves the strong and healthy animals to reproduce.

Predators do not always have an easy life. Some herbivores of the African savanna are large and can hurt their predators; to avoid becoming a meal, they defend themselves by kicking with hooves and stabbing with horns. Predators are not always successful when they hunt, which can waste time and precious energy. A recent study showed that only 36 percent of the dead animals (by weight) in the Serengeti (a large savanna in East Africa) were killed by predators; the majority had died from natural causes such as illness or injury. Often carnivores, including lions, jackals, hyenas, and leopards, will scavenge food rather than hunt for themselves. They do not waste energy hunting down an animal. Predators leave very little meat behind, since it might be a long time before they catch another meal. Leopards carry their prey into trees to avoid scavengers, such as hyenas, and to hide it out of sight from vultures. A pride of lions will fiercely guard a carcass from other predators or scavengers.



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