Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

Predator or Prey: Who do we cheer for?

Cheetah family feeding from a freshly killed kudu in a South African safari.

A family of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) feed from the fresh carcass of a kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), but should we feel happy that the cheetahs are getting fed or sad that a young kudu died?

Anyone interested in the natural world has undoubtedly watched their fair share of nature documentaries. Natural history film-making allows some of the most fascinating and spectacular images and scenes from nature to be transmitted to anyone in the world: someone might never see a lion (Panthera leo) in real life, but through documentaries, they can have a very emotional and intellectual connection with one. Hearing the soft narration of David Attenborough over spectacular images of animals, plants and landscapes is the way in which many people learn about the natural history of far away lands. However, there are psychological and evolutionary forces at work when we sit comfortably to watch the latest episode of our favourite nature documentary, forces that connect us with our remote ancestors in the wilds of Africa and elsewhere.

One very common feature of the nature documentary is the struggle between predator and prey; for example, a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) locked in a life and death chase with an impala (Aepyceros melampus) or a crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) snatching a blue wildebeest (Connchaetes taurinus) as it desperately tried to cross a river during the Great Migration. These types of scene are common place almost every day all over the world as animals battle to survive in the wild; predators struggle to catch other animals so as to feed themselves and their families and prey must be ever vigilant and quick witted to avoid the jaws and claws of a hungry hunter. But something interesting happens inside us when we watch these violent scenes from nature; we find ourselves cheering the seemingly helpless prey animal as it races and fights to escape from certain death and we are saddened if the predator succeeds in its kill and begins its grizzly feeding. But why is this? Ultimately it’s because we humans, as primates and mammals, have spent most of our evolutionary past as prey to all manner of fearsome beasts and when it comes to picking a team, it’s much easier for us to side with prey over predator.

It was not so long ago (in geological time) that our ancestors roamed African savannahs in their small family groups and found themselves becoming an easy to catch food source for the big cats that we now go and see when on safari. Our ancestors would have lived in a great deal of fear and alertness that, say, a leopard (Panthera pardus) might kill their children during the night or that a crocodile might launch at them when they come to the river to drink or any number of horrific scenarios that make them the victim of powerful predators. They gained instincts that helped protect them, keep them alive and, ultimately, conquer the world, such as being fearful and observant of their surroundings and also to look our for one another. Even though as a species we are not particularly physically adapted at defending ourselves, we have a powerful brain that gave us the ability to make tools, solve problems and alter our environments and eventually we became super predators, however, this is a very recent development in our species’ history and the drives deep inside us still align us with the prey rather than the predator.

Natural history filmmakers can also play tricks with our perception; with some careful and purposeful editing, and the right music, the narrative can be changed and our sympathies can suddenly be put with the predator. A few images of some cute but hungry lion cubs is enough to get us cheering for the lionesses who have to bring back food to feed the youngsters. However, the filmmakers are appealing to the same instincts in us that come naturally when the emphasis is on the prey and not the predator; we want the best for the cute little cubs because we feel drawn to animals that are small, fluffy and helpless because they remind us of our own species’ history as well as our offspring.

Although we do seem to have a natural bias in favour of prey animals, it is important to remember that predators are not the bad guys, they have to feed themselves as well as their families and they have a vital role to play in their ecosystems. Wildlife documentaries do a fantastic job about educating us about the natural world and it’s interesting to reflect that not so long ago, we humans were much more a part of the natural world than we are today.

This wonderful sequence from the BBC’s Life of Mammals exemplifies the struggle between predators and prey, enjoy:

Much love,

-Nick

If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Dangerous Animals category.
Previous Dangerous Animals entries:
Living in the African Bush
When Herbivores Attack: Buffalo & Hippo
Adam Sandler attacked by cheetah in South Africa
1 Comment »

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 »