It's a rough-and-tumble cat fight in Africa's Kalahari Desert!

While cruising along a gravel track in the semi-arid sandveld of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park recently, field guide Warrick Davies spotted a caracal lying at the base of a camel-thorn tree, its gaze fixed upwards at the branches.

"We thought it was watching birds flying around in the tree," Davies told StoryTrender. "But on closer inspection, we noticed there was an African wildcat perched high up in the branches."

Caracals are formidable predators capable of tackling prey two or three times their own size. The medium-sized cats typically do their hunting on the ground, using their powerful rear legs to launch themselves several feet into the air in pursuit of prey, typically a bird of some variety.

This caracal, however, had lofty aspirations: it scrambled up the camel thorn in an attempt to nab the smaller cat, which was balancing precariously on the thin outer boughs. With no escape route in sight, the African wildcat hurled itself into the air and plunged at least 50 feet (15 metres) towards the sandy ground below. The caracal followed in hot pursuit, treating Davies to a dual display of feline acrobatics.

"I lost view of the cats as they ran through the grass … but moments later they reappeared, with the caracal snatching and killing the wildcat," Davies recalls.

Although an "aerial" escape plan like this one may seem like a risky option, cats are built for these kinds of high-flying manoeuvres, and it's likely that both felines were uninjured in the descent. "Being able to survive falls is a critical thing for animals that live in trees, and cats are one of them," Dr Jake Socha, a biomechanist at Virginia Tech University, explained to the BBC back in 2012.

There are several records of cats tumbling from staggering heights only to walk away relatively unscathed. (In one such tale, a domestic feline fell 32 storeys from a high-rise building and landed on concrete down below. The damage? A chipped tooth and a collapsed lung.)

This leopard in South Africa's Londolozi Private Game Reserve was captured in a rare moment of clumsiness late last year.

This almost mystical ability of cats to survive such significant falls comes down to feline physiology, evolutionary biology and good ol' physics. A study published in 1987 used data from a New York City emergency veterinary clinic to determine the extent of injuries on cats that had fallen from high-rise buildings. The vast majority survived, leading the researchers to deduce that these nimble animals are built to take a tumble.

In proportion to their weight, cats have a relatively large surface area when sailing through the air, which reduces the force with which they hit the ground (you'll notice that the standard cat-falling posture involves splayed limbs to increase drag on the way down). The study's authors worked out that an average-sized cat achieves terminal velocity (the speed at which the downward pull of gravity is equalled by the upward force of wind resistance) at about 60mph (97km/h). An average-sized man tumbles at twice that speed.

In addition to their "parachute" bodies, cats are equipped with muscular legs that act like shock absorbers when they make contact with the ground. The same muscles used to launch cats in the direction of their prey are used to divert energy into decelerating when sticking a landing. The angle of the legs also helps to absorb the impact when falling.

So, while it makes for heart-racing viewing, aerial acrobatics are nothing out of the ordinary for those in the feline guild. As for the cat-on-cat attack, well that happens too…

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