Ten Things We’ve Learned About Lions Since Disney’s Original ‘The Lion King’

Since the animated movie came out 25 years ago, zoologists have expanded our understanding of these fierce carnivores

Step aside, Mufasa. In the real world, females run the pride. (Disney)
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In 1994, Disney’s The Lion King opened our eyes to the social networks of the animal kingdom—with a little Shakespearean twist. While the anthropomorphized cartoons took quite a few liberties (like the song-and-dance numbers), Disney did try to maintain some level of realism by hiring a wildlife expert to bring real lions into the studio, helping the animation team convey lifelike movements.

Twenty-five years after the release of Disney’s classic animated movie, the story returned to the big screen in a remake released July 18. In that time, zoologists have learned significantly more about the behavior and biology of the kings of the savanna.

1. Prides of lions are run by females, but there’s no queen.

Unfortunately for Disney, it isn’t really all about the king. Prides are run by generations of females who own and defend a territory together. Males, on the other hand, leave home around two or three years old and join forces to conquer a new pride, fighting other males and establishing a hierarchy. Most social mammals also have a hierarchical ranking for females, with top females dominating reproduction within the group, supported by subordinate females who stop breeding. However, research conducted in 2001 showed that female lions have more of a sisterhood, with each lioness breeding at roughly the same rate. The mothers then raise their young together, perhaps finding strength in numbers.

2. Even though females are the primary hunters, male lions can hunt, too.

Female lions famously hunt their prey in packs, while male lions have typically been viewed as the lazy recipients of the spoils. Research from 2013, however, revealed that male lions hunt as well. While females team up in open savannas, male lions hunt on their own, ambushing their future dinner from behind dense vegetation.

3. Lions leave the scene after a successful kill to allow prey animals time to let their guards down again.

For a long time, researchers were puzzled about why large mammalian carnivores move from one hunting ground to another. Was it a “scorched earth” policy of eating all the available prey and leaving once the area was barren, or do they temporarily leave after a kill for another reason? A 2011 study tracked the movement of eight African lions through 2,700 square miles in Zimbabwe to find out. The scientists discovered that 87 percent of successful kills were followed by the lions trekking over three miles away from the site, suggesting the predators temporarily leave a hunting ground after a kill to give potential prey a chance to get comfortable, before they strike again.

4. Males with darker manes get most of the action.

Male lions are some of the only cats to have manes, but until this century no one knew why. In 2002, a study led by lion expert Craig Packer revealed that males with longer, darker manes had higher testosterone, fewer injuries and were more mature. (What more could a lioness want?) Using life-sized models of lions with different colored manes, Packer showed that males avoided the dark-haired models, most likely to avert conflict, while females preferred to be close to them. The tradeoff is that darker locks also absorbed more heat, like a black T-shirt on a sunny day.

Lion
Researchers know more about the biology and behavior of lions than ever before. ( Sylvain CORDIER via Getty Images)

5. A lion’s roar is shaped by the folds of its vocal chords.

If you’ve seen the opening of any MGM movie, you know what a lion’s roar sounds like—loud, reverberating and low pitched. A study in 2011 examined how the folds of a lion’s vocal chords create this effect. Unlike most species that have triangular vocal folds, lions and tigers were found to have flat, square folds that are around one inch thick. This shape allows the folds to hold up against strong stretching and tension, creating a deep and loud roar. Species like elk have folds with a similar size but different shape, giving them a higher pitched call.

6. Lionesses synchronize their fertility cycles.

The myth that females who live together synchronize menstrual cycles might not be true for people, but it is partially the case with lions. Although lionesses, like most mammals, don’t menstruate, they still have fertility cycles. Researchers found that females in a pride synchronize their cycles in order to birth their cubs at the same time. The behavior is thought to increase the pride’s reproductive success, either by allowing mother lions to rely on each other for protection, or simply by producing a larger number of cubs, increasing the likelihood of some surviving after a predator attack.

7. Lions nuzzle to increase social bonds.

The knowledge that lions nuzzle one another isn’t new—the original Lion King had dozens of animated examples. But until recently, few had studied the purpose of this behavior. In 2013, Japanese researchers observing the interactions between captive lions determined that nuzzling is likely used to increase social bonds. Males were the most likely to cuddle each other, usually in the form of head rubbing. Females, on the other hand, licked both males and other females, especially cubs, likely as a maternal habit or to clean other members of the pride. Male-to-female cuddling was the least common behavior.

8. Attacks on humans in Tanzania could be more likely to occur after a full moon.

Tides aren’t the only thing that can rise with a full moon. A study tracking 500 lion attacks in Tanzania from 1988 to 2009 showed that lions are most likely to attack humans in the second half of the lunar cycle, when the moon doesn’t rise until well after dusk in Tanzania, allowing the predators to hide in the darkness. During the first half of the lunar cycle, when the moon is bright in the sky just after dusk, the rate of attacks on humans was only one third of the rate during the second half of the cycle.

9. A lion may be more likely to attack a human after it tries to hunt a porcupine.

A lion might love to eat you, but you’re probably not its first choice. A 2019 study investigating the relationship between lions and porcupines showed that porcupine-induced injuries could force lions to hunt humans or cattle rather than their primary prey. Lions usually only eat porcupines in desperate situations when food is scarce, like during droughts. Young males are especially likely to make that tragic mistake. The quill-filled meal could result in serious injuries or even death. In some cases, injuries can limit a lion’s ability to hunt for food, forcing it to turn to slower, less traditional sources of prey, like humans.

10. African lion populations have been drastically shrinking for the past 25 years.

While The Lion King is coming back, real lions are at risk of disappearing. Recent reports show that the lion populations of West and Central Africa have decreased by roughly 50 percent since 1993, and they are predicted to decrease by half again in the next twenty years. Specialists cite human influence as the main damaging factor, such as farmland spreading into lion habitats and the growing bushmeat trade thinning out prey animals. In 2015, the African lion subspecies Panthera leo leo was officially listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. At the time of the decision, only 1,400 lions of this subspecies remained.

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