Lions: Lazy or just very, very patient?
Lions have a reputation for being profoundly lazy. To the list of inert elements of neon, krypton and argon, it is tempting to add lion. But while lions do sleep for most of the day, they are not idle slackers; they are profoundly patient.
Lions are ambush predators: they lie in wait. There is no need to be antsy during those long hours between hunting opportunities. If a group of lions has caught something recently or failed in a chase, they’ve given away their location, which all the prey in the vicinity will avoid for the rest of the day. But the Serengeti is a moveable feast, and any prey animals that slowly drift in to the area will have little idea of the precise location of danger, if the lions are hiding quietly in tall grass.
On the other hand, lions do tend to wait around near river courses and rocky outcrops, and herbivores will avoid these spots as much as possible. But if there is only one waterhole in the vicinity, the wildebeest, zebra, warthog and buffalo will have to weigh their thirst against the risks of being eaten, should there be lions hiding in those bushes over there. And if nothing stumbles blindly towards them, hungry lions will eventually have to emerge and actively search for their prey – but not until after dark.
Either way, it’s a game that predators and prey must play every day of their lives, but since lions can easily wait 3-4 days between meals, they have a fundamentally different perspective on the passage of time than the rest of us.
And that’s what makes the camera-trap data so incredibly exciting for me. In the mid-1980’s, I took turns with one of my former graduate students, David Scheel, watching lions 96 consecutive hours twice a month for several years – we were out with the lions for four days in a row just before and after each full moon, squinting through night-vision goggles whenever the moon was above the horizon. I nearly went out of my mind waiting for the lions to catch their next meal. We wanted to find out why lions live in social groups – and we were able to dispense with the myth that lions evolved to become social because of advantages from cooperative hunting: individual females in foraging groups didn’t feed any better than solitary females.
But there were so many more questions that we couldn’t hope to address without a better idea how lions and their prey play that spatial game of cat and mouse around the waterholes. And maybe the prey take advantage of the lions’ territorial behavior by finding refuge in the no-man’s land between pride ranges, or maybe the prey somehow move randomly from nowhere in particular to nowhere else in particular just to keep the lions guessing. A few years ago, Ali Swanson and I found that the Serengeti lions consistently fed better during the dark phase of the moon – what extra steps do the prey take to try to keep safe on those dark, dark nights?
We will finally be able to tackle these ideas with the camera-trap data. In the coming months and years, we will overlay the camera-trap grid on to maps of high-risk features in the landscape and of lion-telemetry sightings, and then we will finally see how the Serengeti herbivores cope with the uncertainties of living with the hidden dangers of those not-so-lazy lions.