You might remember that National Geographic did a big story on “our” lions last year. David Quammen spent a while being bounced around in our land rovers and Nick Nichols and his crew spent months on end camping in the southeastern corner of our study area, following the Vumbi pride’s every move.
Well, one of Nick’s pictures from that trip has just won him the prized Wildlife Photographer of the Year award! The competition, co-run by London’s Natural History Museum and the BBC, has just turned 50 years old, and is a pretty big deal (you can read about it here). Nick’s winning piece is a black and white photo of the Vumbi pride sprawled in rather epic fashion over the kopjes. We can’t post the picture here for copyright purposes, unfortunately, but go check it out! And go check out some of the other fantastic runners-up here while you’re at it.
Cheetahs, it seems, just can’t stop shattering everything we believed to be true about them.
Scientists have long believed that lions (and hyenas to some extent) threaten cheetah conservation efforts — in large part because they kill so many cheetah cubs. But last year, researchers from South Africa revealed that lions probably don’t kill as many cheetah cubs as folks previously believed. And shortly after that, our research showed that regardless of the amount of lion-inflicted cheetah cub mortality, cheetahs do just fine around large lion populations.
Just last month, another story broke that shakes up how we think about cheetahs. It turns out that not only are cheetahs not as vulnerable to killing by lions, but they cheetahs aren’t nearly as vulnerable to non-lethal bullying either. It was thought that because cheetahs couldn’t fight back against lions – or hyenas – they lost a lot of their hard-earned kills to these ruthless scavengers. (Yes, both lions and hyenas do steal food from each other and from cheetahs.) We knew that wild dogs expend so much energy hunting that they can’t afford to lose even moderate levels of food, and assumed that cheetahs were similarly vulnerable. But, as a recent study from Bostwana and South Africa found out, they aren’t. It turns out that despite being super fast, cheetahs don’t expend all that much energy chasing down their prey. Researchers estimate that cheetahs could lose a full 50% of their kills to lions and hyenas, and still get all the calories they need!
All in all, it’s beginning to look a lot like the biggest threats to cheetahs aren’t lions and hyenas. Instead, availability of denning sites (as suggested by our research) and human destruction of habitat that forces cheetahs to travel far and wide in search of prey (suggested by this most recent study) are probably much, much greater threats to their survival.
Thank you so much to everyone who sent in their favorite photos. We’ve submitted the following 12 to BBC’s photo-of-the-year contest. Of course, there were many, many more we wish we could have used!
and one of my new personal favorites:
In other news, we are *almost* at halfway to our Indiegogo fundraising goal!!!! Thank you all for your support so far! And please don’t forget to check out the meme generator at http://www.SaveTheMemes.org! You can now make a meme directly from the talk pages!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how awful lions are to other large carnivores. Basically, lions harass, steal food from, and even kill hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, and wild dogs. Their aggression usually has no visible justification (e.g. they don’t eat the cheetahs they kill), but can have devastating effects. One of my main research goals is to understand how hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs survive with lions. As I mentioned the other week, I think the secret may lie in how these smaller carnivores use the landscape to avoid interacting with lions.
Top predators (the big ones doing the chasing and killing) can create what we call a “landscape of fear” that essentially reduces the amount of land available to smaller predators. Smaller predators are so afraid of encountering the big guys that they avoid using large chunks of the landscape altogether. One of my favorite illustrations of this pattern is the map below, which shows how swift foxes restrict their territories to the no-man’s land between coyote territories.
The habitat inside the coyote territories is just as good, if not better, for the foxes, but the risk of encountering a coyote is too great. By restricting their habitat use to the areas outside coyote territories, swift foxes have essentially suffered from habitat loss, meaning that they have less land and fewer resources to support their population. There’s growing evidence that this effective habitat loss may be the mechanism driving suppression in smaller predators. In fact, this habitat loss may have larger consequences on a population than direct killing by the top predator!
While some animals are displaced from large areas, others may be able to avoid top predators at a much finer scale. They may still use the same general areas, but use scent or noise to avoid actually running into a lion (or coyote). This is called fine-scale avoidance, and I think animals that can achieve fine-scale avoidance, instead of suffering from large-scale displacement, manage to coexist.
The camera traps are, fingers crossed, going to help me understand at what scale hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs avoid lions. My general hypothesis is that if these species are generally displaced from lion territories, and suffer effective habitat loss, their populations should decline as lion populations grow. If instead they are able to use the land within lion territories, avoiding lions by shifting their patterns of habitat use or changing the time of day they are active, then I expect them to coexist with lions pretty well.
So what have we seen so far? Stay tuned – I’ll share some preliminary results next week!
Map adapted from: Kamler, J.F., Ballard, W.B., Gilliland, R.L., and Mote, K. (2003b). Spatial relationships between swift foxes and coyotes in northwestern Texas. Canadian Journal of Zoology 81, 168–172.