Lions, hyenas, and leopards, oh my.

Craig (my adviser and the Director of the Lion Project) sometimes jokes that I wandered into his office looking to study tigers. It’s actually sort of true.  I had been at the University of Minnesota to interview with a tiger researcher – but fell in love with the science that Craig’s team was conducting. Six months later I became the newest addition to the Lion Lab.

As part of the Lion Lab, my dissertation research focuses on how lions coexist with other large carnivores – hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs. Understanding how species coexist is a really big question in ecology. When two species eat the same thing, the species that eats (& reproduces) faster can exclude the slower species from that area. A lot of ecology is devoted to understanding the conditions that allow for coexistence in the face of such competition.  The natural world is an incredibly diverse place, and it turns out the plants and animals have all sorts of strategies to survive together – though we’ll have to dive into those details another day.

Carnivores throw a bit of a wrench into our understanding of coexistence – even when they don’t eat exactly the same prey, they harass each other, steal food from each other, and even kill each other – and these aggressive interactions can result in dramatic suppression or even complete exclusion of certain species.  For example, there’s a fair bit of evidence that wild dogs have a tough time surviving in areas with lots of lions and hyenas – not because lions and hyenas kill wild dogs, but because they steal food from them.  Since wild dogs expend so much energy hunting, they simply can’t afford to lose those calories to scavengers. These patterns aren’t actually unique to large carnivores – a lot of animals, from bugs to birds, interact this way. However, since carnivores range over such large areas, it can be challenging to understand their dynamics.

That’s where the camera traps come in.  The long term lion research project provides incredible amounts of detailed data on what lions do, where they are, and how successful they are at reproducing.  By adding the camera survey on top of the lion study area, I can collect information about the other carnivore species and integrate it with the detailed lion data to ask bigger questions than could be answered with one dataset alone.  Unfortunately, there aren’t any wild dogs left within the study area, but I can still investigate how lions coexist with leopards, cheetahs and hyenas.  It’s a bit gruesome when you get down to it — lions tend to dominate all the other species when it comes to one-on-one interactions, stealing their food or even just killing them for no apparent reason. For example, lions kill somewhere between 25-55% of cheetah cubs! And you can see here Stan’s photos of lions just killing…and leaving…a leopard.

Lions chasing…

...and catching...

…and catching…

...and leaving...a leopard

…and leaving…a leopard

Lions will also kill hyenas, but enough hyenas can be a pretty solid threat to lions – able to steal carcasses or kill their cubs.  Leopards sometimes kill and eat lion cubs.  We don’t yet know if hyenas and leopards do this at a rate that actually hurts lions in the long-term, but we’re hoping to find out.

One of the key things I’m trying to find out (with a lot of green coffee and evening sessions) is how these species use their habitat with respect to each other.  Research in other ecosystems shows that smaller carnivores (those that usually lose a fight) can get pushed out of large areas, existing sort of in the ‘no-man’s land’ between top carnivore territories – and when this happens, their numbers can plummet.  However, if the smaller carnivore can just avoid the larger one within its territory, they might be able to coexist.  A lot of this depends on the habitat complexity – for example, in open areas, it’s harder for the smaller guy to hide.

The camera traps let me evaluate these different patterns of avoidance to understand how lions, hyenas, leopards, and cheetahs all coexist in Serengeti National Park.  Once we understand their dynamics in Serengeti, we can hopefully understand why they do or don’t coexist elsewhere.  It’s a pretty cool science question – and it’s also an amazing adventure.  I head back to Serengeti this January for my final field season, and am looking forward to sharing the adventure with you on this blog.


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About ali swanson

I'm an ecologist studying how large carnivores coexist. I spend way too much of my time trying to stop hyenas and elephants from munching my camera traps!

8 responses to “Lions, hyenas, and leopards, oh my.”

  1. Frederic J. Feingold says :

    Greetings, I just found this project in my e-mail this morning, signed up and am having an addictedly good time.

    However: what if three frames on I realize that I misidentified someone? What if the frame is not really empty but the subject is too far away or sitting on the camera? Could we have a menu choice for that? Could the identification photos be improved and juveniles displayed? Can a zoom function be added to the images?

    Do you guys do random checks to see if we have any idea of what we are doing?

    Fred Feingold Lee, Massachusetts 01238

    • ali swanson says :

      Hi Fred –
      It’s okay if you make a mistake. Your answers will be combined with those of other users — we’ll be able to make an authoritative identification based on the % agreement of everyone’s combined answers. Results from our Beta testing have been excellent. Margaret’s going to try and write a post about this process soon — but you can also check out the FAQ here — Thanks again for participatin!

  2. Szura says :

    So interesting! Thank you. 🙂

  3. Steph says :

    Hi Ali!!! We are spreading the word about the project. Great to see it up and running. Hope all is well with you! -steph

    • ali swanson says :

      Awesome!! Thanks! Good to have a proper science writer spreading the word — i’m still fumbling my way around blogs and *gasp* twitter.

  4. JHurd says :

    Just spent the better part of my morning at work arguing with a coworker as to whether or not it was a wildebeest or an eland that just wandered past the last of the 3 pics I came across. Answer? wildebeest! ( we did rock paper scissors, but as i rightly pointed out to my coworker, I have been to Namibia and know the bloody difference whereas he watches CNN)

    • Perry Tweed says :

      Regarding the three photos purporting to depict lions hunting and killing a leopard…that unfortunate animal certainly appears to me to be, in fact, a cheetah. Its markings certainly look more like those found on a cheetah. Also, the size of that cat’s head is quite small in relation to the lioness that has it in her grasp.Leopards, which is much larger in size than a cheetah, are far more muscular than cheetahs and the males have a head comparable to the size of a lioness. Leopards are also known to kill cheetahs.

      • lucy Hughes says :

        These images do indeed show a leopard. It is hard to tell sometimes but if you look closely you will see rosettes typical of leopard and not spots typical of cheetah. If you look closely at the muzzle you will not see the dark tear stain of a cheetah.

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