Lazy lion king? Remote sensing sheds light on lion male hunting behavior
A recent study conducted on lion hunting behaviour suggests there is gender equality despite being a strongly sexually dimorphic species. The results help to redefine the long held belief that lionesses do most of the hunting while their male counterparts stay close to the pride. They are, in fact, equally successful hunters, using vastly different predation strategies.
Observations took place in South Africa's' Kruger National Park over a 100 km area in the Satara region. The team, Scott Loarie, Craig Tambling, and Gregory Asner, collared seven lions, five females and two males, with GPS mobile communication using a standard procedure capture and collar process. They carefully monitored and synchronized schedules for recording data over a two-year period between May 2005 and April 2007.
Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), an optical remote sensing observation technology situated 200m above ground, was utilized to map elevation, woody canopy height and 3-D structures to determine the exact locations of lion predation events. The combination of the two tracking systems allowed them to relate spatial heterogeneity in vegetation structure with predator/prey interactions, something that had previously been less well understood.
A lioness will rest and hunt in the same landscape, making observations of her behavior less challenging. Alternatively, male lions rest in similar vegetative structures as the females, but prefer other predator ambush opportunities that are markedly different than social hunting in the open range.
Results from the observations shed light on male predation that would not have been available without the advanced technology. Past studies suggested that differing prey choice explained much of the differences in male and female hunting behavior in shaping lion hunting success.
This study links male lion hunting behaviour to dense vegetation and shorter lines-of-sight, both offering the male its preference for a greater variety of prey, from smaller kills such as impalas to larger kills like buffalos. These results underline the importance of landscape-scale vegetation structure in shaping predator/ prey impacts. By strongly linking the two, the results conclude that any changes to these vegetation structures could most likely cause changes in the balance of predators and prey where lions are present.
The authors acknowledged that although the results of the study were robust, the conclusions drawn were from a small number of individual lions from the Kruger National Park. "Caution must be taken when considering whether conclusions from such a small sample of individuals can be generalized to other populations and landscapes," Asner said, adding that, "these patterns may only apply to the area of study and recommend that these results be viewed more as a case study to motivate larger scale studies rather than as a broad generalization of lion hunting behavior."
By Doris Downes
Source: Loarie, S. R. et al., Lion hunting behavior and vegetation structures in an African savanna, Animal Behaviour (2013)