Friday, September 19, 2014

Stuffed lions - past and present

Hey folks! My name is Eli, I’m a 3rd year PhD student and a recent arriver in Fisi camp (I'm writing under Tracy's name until I get access as an official poster). It isn’t my first time in here in the Mara; I worked as an RA in Talek during 2011-2012, and I must shamefully admit that I didn’t do much blogging during that year. This year I promise I will do better! I’m incredibly excited to be back in the Mara and to get a chance to experience both sides of the park more fully over the next year.  My plan is to spend time in both Talek and Serena camps doing a few experiments looking at social behavior in adults and cubs of different clans.

I regret to inform you that today’s post will not be about hyenas (bad start, right?). Those of you who are long-term readers of the blog may recognize this, however:
Ali (a lion researcher from Craig Packer’s lab) sets up
 two stuffed lions in Talek territory in 2012.
 Photo by Steph Dloniak 
            These are two stuffed lions on loan to us from Craig Packer’s lion research lab out of the University of Minnesota.  With these lions, Packer and his student Peyton West investigated hypotheses concerning the function of the iconic mane of male lions.  The most widely held hypothesis about the function of the lion’s mane was that it protects males from neck injuries during aggressive interactions. West and Packer found, however, that injuries to the neck area were not more frequent than injuries to other areas, and neck injuries were also no more likely to be fatal than other injuries. These findings suggest that the mane isn’t functioning as a shield. If it were, it would protect a highly targeted or vulnerable area!

Packer's dummies outfitted with variously colored
and sized manes. Photo from the Packer lab.
West and Packer next investigated the hypothesis that the lion’s mane is a trait that signals a male's quality. To do this, they acquired life sized stuffed lions with removable manes. They presented dummy males with different manes to real male and female lions and found that both sexes responded quite differently depending on the size and color of the lion dummy’s mane. Males were more likely to approach males with shorter and blonder manes, suggesting that they found them less threatening. Likewise, females were more likely to approach males with dark manes, suggesting that they found the more attractive.  The findings support the conclusion that the mane is less of a shield and more of a signal of male quality. Pretty cool! If you are interested in reading more about these experiments check out their paper in Science in which they discuss the how climate change could affect mane size and color and its function as a sexual signal.

Here a male lion cautiously approaches one of the dummies in Packer and West’s experiment on mane function. From supporting materials of “Sexual Selection, Temperature, and the Lion’s Mane” published in Science in August 2002. 

            These lions should look familiar to some of you because in 2012 we briefly borrowed the lions to try out some experiments in which we were looking at the coordinated mobbing behavior hyenas display when they cooperate to fight with lions over control of a carcass. Kay wrote a blog post about these set of experiments, but the short version of the story is that we saw some pretty interesting stuff but none of the intense mobbing behavior we were hoping to observe.

Hyenas from the Talek clan warily approach the dummies
during the mobbing experiments conducted in 2012.
Photo taken by Steph Dloniak.

Now we have borrowed the lions again to do some related experiments, which Tracy, Kenna and I will be collaborating on over the next year.  We will investigate the conditions under which different hyenas either decide to recruit help in fighting with lions over a carcass or instead choose to sneakily steal some of the food all on their own. Stay tuned for updates on how it goes, but for now enjoy some photos of the old girl in action!

Tracy, Kenna and I picking up the lions from Stan, one of
Craig Packer’s research assistants.
The stuffed lion set up during one of our test runs of the latest
 experiment on recruitment during competition with lions.
More info to follow! 
Look at that face!

1 comment:

dee said...

I sooooo wish I could be there! This should be a very interesting year for you guys, please keep us posted.

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