Wednesday, February 25, 2015

They're Just Big Kitties

I've always had a deep interest in mammalian carnivores and especially the really big ones. We see videos and pictures of these animals all the time. They are big, viscous animals specialized to hunt and kill. We have a great understanding of their hunting techniques but what has always got me thinking was their social interactions. My family owns 5 cats and with the constant commotion in my house they are very interactive and I often find myself just watching them from a distance and trying to put myself into their minds. I do this not as much to learn about them but to gain insight on what might be going on in the mind of their big cat relatives while they're not on the hunt.
Although my cats are friendly they seem to spend most of their time kept to themselves and it is really only when they are quite young that they spend more than a few minutes interacting with the other cats. My gears really started turning the other day when I watched a documentary on a  siberian tiger filming excursion. A man who had spent years in the forest by himself with these cats explained a lot about their social behaviors and even got some good live footage (although not much because they are extremely hard to find). I realized while watching this that these huge tigers behaved much like my domestic house cats in the way they interacted socially. Cubs would stay with their mother until old enough to live alone and during that time they would play with their siblings much like the sibling kittens I have would but once they hit adulthood there was no more interaction. The adult tigers would live in solitude for the rest of their days and even fight other tigers if they came too close.
After thinking about this for a while I started thinking about the rest of the big cats and doing some research and found that, other than lions, most all cats behaved in a very similar manner. This made a lot of sense to me; the animals are programmed to be territorial hunters who don't want to share their territory or their kill I get it. But then why are lions different? This is the reason I picked this topic to write about because it is something that has been seriously boggling me for some time. My big cat fascination has led me to learn a lot about lions and when learning about lions the thing that every one wants to talk about is their complex social behaviors. They live in complex groups called prides averaging 15 lions but ranging from a mother and her cubs to over 40 lions. They hunt together, raise the young together, protect each other and really act as a faithful family unit. But why? This is what I've been trying to figure out and I've come up with a few hypotheses. One is that the lions simply live in an area so dense with food that the competition for the hunt wasn't necessary and the extremely aggressive and territorial lions were shunned from bands of friendlier lions leading to their downfall via selection to be a more social lion. I think this could be a reason but I have my doubts that the instinctual greediness that most organisms show would have left this species and not its relatives. The other hypothesis I have that I feel more strongly about is that lions did not choose to become social but they were forced. As biologists we all know that our environment shapes us and we shape our environment, my hypothesis is that as grasslands in Africa opened up every species naturally had to become very fast in order to out run its predators, with one of their main predators being lions. With prey becoming faster the lions had no option but to either match their victim's speed or find a new way to hunt and i think they went with the latter. While one lion would have to locate its prey and beat it in a foot race to catch it, a group of lions would have many other options. They would be able to ambush them from different angles or herd groups of animals to push them right to where another lion is hiding. With this new method of hunting being so effective the social lions would have prospered and been able to catch enough prey for the whole pride with ease while the territorial loner lions would have not been able to meet their food needs and would have slowly died off until there were none left; natural selection at its finest. To solidify this hypothesis I put some thought into other predators of the African grasslands and it appears that they like to also hunt in groups, this is seen in species like the Hyena and the African wild dog which hunt alongside lions in the same territory. There is one African apex predator that hunts all alone and rightly so because it is the fastest land animal in the world, the cheetah. Comparing these two predators which hunt the same prey in the same environments displays two dominant predators with two quite different hunting styles. Could the cheetah have the better design for the African grasslands and be the more successful species? I think in the future we might think they are and here is why; Lions occupy the same niche as other predators in the same territory and while they could be viewed as the most dominant, they are still facing competition and in the event of a decline of prey will lion prides be able to strive amongst their rivals and avoid a decline in population numbers as has been seen in certain lion species? Maybe not. While the cheetahs also have competition, they occupy a slightly different niche and can solitarily hunt in situations where other African apex predators may not be able to.
What are you guys' opinions on these hypotheses or on any other cat/carnivore behavior that you might be interested in? Do you have any other hypotheses that you think might explain these social differences among the cat family? If you guys wanna go read more into big cats and their behaviors check out this website. TheBigCats

-Cullan Bartel


  1. After watching Big Cat Week on Nat Geo Wild in late January, I fell in love with the big cats and their way of living. The prides are so interesting -- it's incredible how the pride stays together, hunts together, and grows together. The young cubs often play-fight with each other -- most likely to practice their fighting skills for when it's time to hunt in the wild. I've seen on TV how the pride hunts together -- its really cool to watch how they often plank their prey and stalk the weakest link in a herd. I think you're right about how the social interactions among lions give them a hunting advantage. In the wild, prey can often be stolen from other predators (think hyenas), and the more lions in a pride secures their superiority against the other competitors in the wild. Cool post!

    -Michael Salhany

  2. This is very interesting, and I have often wondered the same about lions. I once watched a documentary called "Into the Pride", which was about a zoologist who lived with a wild pride of lions for several months to analyze their social behaviors. It was quite interesting and if you are interested in that type of thing definitely check it out (it's on Netflix)! Other than a couple of grammatical errors this was a good post.

    Erika Nevins

  3. Intriguing topic, I to have always been fascinated with big cats. I think that the way these big cats interact is fascinating as well. Do you think that this social behavior could help explain why lions in particular can (or at least could) be found in a large geographic range (ex. Asiatic lions)? As opposed to some other (none social) big cats who tend to live in specific environments.

    David Rains,

  4. This is a very interesting topic! I've never really thought about or asked why it is that lions have prides while other large cat species prefer a solitary life. I do believe your hypothesis as a legit reason, and perhaps this affection and loyalty we see has been an add on to a prides evolution for survival. What I find particularly interesting is that the majority of a pride are related females with one dominant male (unless males are born into the pride), and it's rare for outside males to be accepted into another pride. However! Males do pair up if they're alone, which can be considered evidence towards their grouping for survival.

    ~Mitchel Logan

  5. In my experience keeping cats as pets, I'm always surprised by the amount they sleep. Compared to other household animals, like rabbits or hamsters, which are incredibly "figity". I suppose this makes sense to the respective lifestyles of these animals. Cats are predatory animals, and must conserve their energy for hunting. Since they aren't hunted themselves, they don't need to fear being in danger and can afford to sleep a lot to conserve their energy. Animals like rabbits and hamsters are prey animals, and it pays for them to be vigilant so that they are not caught off guard.
    -Patrick O'Loughlin