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Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?

If you’ve been following this blog you might have noticed by now how much I like to talk about Disney’s almost 20 year old film, The Lion King. It presents numerous African species throughout its story, some well portrayed, some not so well, but overall a great starting point to introduce interesting facts and curiosities about the amazing African wildlife.

Today I would like to focus on the hyenas from The Lion King, how they are portrayed in the film and how they are in real life. Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), also known as “laughing hyenas” are a very interesting species to study and learn more about; just like African Elephants, they form matriarchal societies in which females are above males in terms of rank and in charge of the group. They are bigger and more aggressive and, as I discussed previously, newborns are even capable of killing their siblings to rise up in rank. Unlike what many people think they are not hermaphrodites, however, because of the “strange” female genitalia, their lack of sexual dimorphism and the female aggressiveness, it gets quite hard for us to tell males and females apart.

Take a look at the hyenas from the Lion King pictured below. They are called Banzai, Shenzi and Ed, and the only way anyone would know that the middle one is a female is because Whoopi Goldberg lent her voice to the character (in English-speaking countries).

 

The Lion King hyenas: Banzai, Shenzi and Ed

The Lion King hyenas: Banzai, Shenzi and Ed

 

In the Lion King, Scar refers to them as “idiots” and they are widely portrayed as lions’ natural enemies, however, even though they are indeed lions’ competitors in the wild, they are far from being stupid.

Spotted hyenas are, what we call, opportunistic feeders, if the opportunity presents itself they will go for it without warning; this might mean that they will kill an animal that they have the opportunity to or steal meals from other predators who will run away from them to avoid a confrontation. Lions are the exception.

Lions are the only gregarious feline species, this means that if hyenas want the prey they just killed they must be ready to face an entire pride of lions instead of a single apex predator like a cheetah or a leopard. The odds of getting hurt increase dramatically so they must ponder if it’s worth it or not.

In the Lion King however, we are presented with a different type of situation; Scar is in control of the hyena “army” which he uses to take charge of the realm. This, as you can imagine, would never happen; spotted hyenas and lions are natural enemies and Scar would die as soon as he approached a group of wild hyenas. On top of that, spotted hyenas form societies ruled by females and Scar’s mane make it quite obvious that he is a male lion, but somehow Disney saw fit for a character of a “wrong” species and “wrong” gender to be the leader of the entire group of fierce hyenas.

 

Disney, The Liong King: Scar with hyena army

I bet the lions did nazi them coming.

 

The hyenas are so misportrayed in the Lion King that as a response, when the film was released, a hyena researcher sued Disney for defamation of character!

So what exactly wrong is wrong with Shenzi, Banzai and Ed?

  • Spotted hyenas are not “evil”, they are apex predators just like lions. If they can catch it, they will kill it and eat it. That’s just what predators do.
  • Spotted hyenas do not live in eery places like elephant graveyards nor are they banned from their habitat by lions. Both species are more than capable of co-existing in the same area although in constant direct competition over food resources.
  • Spotted hyenas would never take orders from a male (or female) lion. They are fierce and have no problem facing lions, mobbing them out of their territory and even steal their last kill.

Take a look at the following video that shows a male lion trying to protect his latest kill from a group of hyenas.

 

 

In this case we see a lone male lion clearly outnumbered by the hyenas. His best chance was to just let them have the meal.

Throughout the video we can hear them vocalising with each other. Spotted hyenas are one of the most vocal mammals of Africa and they have a wide range of sounds which they use to communicate with members of their own group from afar. In the video we notice how they are using those vocalisations to call out more members of the group and to alert them of the presence of food and the lion.

So what happens in the wild every time both species are close to each other?

That’s the beauty of nature, animals adapt very easily and the ones that don’t will just die and leave space for the ones that do.

In areas where many lion prides occur, spotted hyenas scavenge more than they prey; in areas where there are more hyenas than lions it’s the other way around, hyenas will hunt as a group and eat prey more than relying on stolen food and scavenging.

Overall I hope you learned something interesting today. Spotted hyenas are amazing animals; they always sound so happy due to their vast number of vocalisations but they are also quite fierce and capable of facing a pride of lions to defend their territory or steal their food.

However sometimes they will be found just resting next to each other like it’s no big deal.

 

Lion (Panthera leo) and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) next to each other

Lion (Panthera leo) and Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) next to each other.
Photo Credit

 

Até à próxima!

~Sofia.


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Disney category.
Previous Disney entries:
Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard
Scar: The black maned lion
Pumbaa: What Disney didn’t tell you
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Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard

We’ve talked a lot about Disney’s The Lion King in previous posts; there are a lot of moments in the film that can provide a bit of inspiration to learn something about African ecology. If you have seen the film, I’m sure you might remember how scary it was when Simba and Nala ventured into in the forbidden elephant graveyard. It was a dark and gloomy place beyond the edge of the pridelands, and vast piles of elephant bones could be seen as far as the eye could see. Thankfully, that eerie scene takes place in a mythological place.

A still of the lion cubs Simba and Nala from Disney's 'The Lion King' in the elephant graveyard.

Simba and Nala are suitably afraid in the spooky elephant graveyard.

The concept of an elephant graveyard is widely known and stuck in the cultural memory, however, the truth of why we think that all elephants go to one place to die, isn’t entirely known. There is definitely evidence that elephant remains can be found localised in certain spots, but why are these elephants coming together in such morbid scenarios? Before we can answer that, there are few facts we need to know about African elephants (Loxodonta Africana); about their behaviour, about their environment and about their physiology.

African elephants are herbivores, meaning they feed exclusively on plant matter such as leaves, roots and bark, and as you would imagine, they can eat a lot of it; an adult might be able to take in 450kg of food in a day. In order to get through all this food they are equipped with appropriate tools, namely a trunk and teeth. The elephant’s trunk is a remarkable, fascinating organ, but in this post, we will focus on the teeth.

Elephants only really have two types of teeth: molars and incisors. Molars are the teeth inside an elephant’s mouth; they are large and solid and used for grinding up tough materials like tree bark. Elephant tusks are actually elongated incisors, very elongated in fact. They are used for a wide range of purposes from fighting and defence to acquiring food and manipulating their environment.

An African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) uses its trunk to drink water whilst showing its impressive tusks.

Elephant tusks grow continually throughout their lives and act as useful tools.
Photo Credits.

So what do elephants’ teeth have to do with elephant graveyards? Well, elephants’ molars are continuously being replaced throughout their lives; new teeth grow in the back of their mouths and push old ones out at the front. They can cycle through six sets of molars through their lives and an elephant can live for fifty to sixty years. The tusks have a different story, they grow slowly and continuously throughout the elephant’s life and their size is regulated by constant wearing down. The fact that elephants have a predetermined number of sets of teeth means that, if they live for long enough, there will come a time when they do not have functional teeth in old age, meaning that they would struggle to process tough plant matter and could possibly be drawn to sources of water that are populated by softer and more nutritious plants. The age of these elephants also means that they ‘appreciate’ staying in an area that has dense vegetation, rather than using a lot energy looking around for food.

The remains of an African Elephant's (Loxodonta africa) jaws showing its molar and premolar teeth.

The molars of an elephant grow from the rear of the mouth and move forward like a conveyor belt as can be seen in these elephant jaws.
Photo Credits.

As the animals get even older they will be able to access less and less food and start to decline in health and inevitably die and over time, many elephants may suffer the same fate which results in their remains being deposited in the same areas. A similar cause of elephant remains accumulating may be related to their general health. As elephants get sicker, for whatever reason, be it disease or parasites, they might seek out water for rehydration, however, a sick elephant has a higher probability of dying than a healthy one and so again, a series of sick elephants may end up dying at the same water hole and their remains will accumulate over time.

So an elephant’s diet and dentition can have an impact on where they die. Of course, many elephants lose their lives from injury or predation or any number of causes and will not deposit their remains near water, however, it happens enough that early observers noted the density of elephant bones in certain areas and drew their own conclusions. There are other theories on how elephant remains accumulate, including trade stockpiles of ivory that became abandoned or even that elephants may gather up bones of their deceased compatriots, but ultimate, no one is 100% sure as to where the idea of an elephant graveyard comes from.

What we do know is that elephant bones can be found in high concentrations at certain locations, those locations are often near sources of water, ill and elderly elephants often seek out and stay close to water, ill and elderly elephants are also more likely to die and therefore, more likely to leave their remains in a localised area. So the elephant graveyard might be a real place, but it’s certainly not as dramatic and conspicuous as is depicted in fiction such as the scene in The Lion King.

Much love,

-Nick


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Disney category.
Other Disney entries:
Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?
Scar: The black maned lion
Pumbaa: What Disney didn’t tell you
14 Comments »

Scar: The black maned lion

A month ago I wrote an entry about Pumbaa the warthog, from Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s adventure buddies in the Disney film, “The Lion King”.

Today I would like to focus on another character from the film: Scar, the black maned lion.

The Lion King: Scar

Scar was Simba’s uncle who plotted his brother’s (Mufasa) death in order to become king, which he eventually achieves with the help of the hyenas. Physically he’s quite different from his brother, he has a scar across his face and he has a black mane which is not common in lions. So one might wonder why Mufasa has a beautiful golden mane and Scar has a shabby black mane. Of course, knowing how Disney works, one can simply infer that it is because he’s the bad guy and the bad guys are always dark and ugly.

But the interesting thought is that there are in fact dark maned lions in the wild, not many unfortunately but they are still some out there.

So now you might wonder if black maned lions in the wild are also despised by other lions while the golden maned ones are the preferred males.

In fact, some researchers a while ago figured this was interesting enough to test with lions in the wild. They got two real size toy lions, one with a dark mane and one with a blond mane and placed them side by side in the wild and waited for lions and lionesses’ reactions.

Males results showed that they would approach the blond maned lion toy more than they would approach the dark maned one as they would see it as less threatening.

Females on the other hand, showed preference to the dark maned lion toy by approaching it with signs of sexual interest a lot more than they would approach the blond one. In the wild, male lions with darker manes often have higher testosterone levels thus making them bigger, more aggressive and more prone to win fights and keep a pride for longer. All of these characteristics are sure to attract females looking for a top notch male to mate.

So how come Mufasa is the one with the big pride, loved by all the females and king of his territory while Scar, the black maned lion is despised by all and exiled to the shadow land?

 

The Lion King: Scar and Mufasa

 

Now we are entering the psychology area so bear with me.

When we are young our view of the world is very limited. We categorise things in good or bad, right or wrong, pretty or ugly. As we grow up we realise that the world is not that simple; some people can be good and bad at the same time, some might look good but be bad or look bad and be good. We learn that because someone is pretty on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean they are pretty on the inside as well.
At first this concept can get a bit confusing and overwhelming so in children’s stories we are presented with a beautiful protagonist that is good and pure and an ugly and evil bad guy/girl.
In fact, children are so incapable of comprehending this concept of a person being perceived good and bad at the same time that there are no bad mothers in kid’s films. Evil motherly figures are never really the mothers, they are the step mothers because kids would have trouble understanding that a mother (a good character that takes care of them) could also be bad.

To aid children’s understanding of who’s good and who’s bad in a film, animators and designers often chose to portray evil characters with dark colours, ugly features and mean voices. This is exactly what happened to Scar. Despite the fact that Scar would be a major hit with females all over the savannah if he was a real lion, as a Disney character he’s condemned to be the evil guy that gets defeated at the end by the handsome young prince..

 

The Lion King: Scar. Life's not fair is it?

 

And with this I say goodbye and até à próxima!

~Sofia.

 

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Disney category.
Other Disney entries:
Spotted Hyenas: Lions’ friends or foes?
Mystery of the Elephant Graveyard
Pumbaa: What Disney didn’t tell you
3 Comments »