What is instinct?
July 17 2012

After the lively birthday party on the 9th of July we found the Ngamo pride milling around the Amboseli area of the site appearing more vocal than normal on the 10th. The research vehicle shook and trembled as Kenge and Milo lead an awe-inspiring roaring chorus setting off the rest of the pride in unison and most interestingly, Ashanti. Ashanti has not been observed roaring since the birth of her litter of two cubs -  understandably not wanting to advertise her and her cub’s location to any potential intruding lions. Now at 8 months Ashanti’s cubs are becoming more independent and integrating further into the pride. They are still somewhat vulnerable and will not become fully independent of mother’s safety until they circa 2 years old, but Ashanti’s brief roaring bout is a clear sign of her confidence in her cubs well being and safety within her territory, provided by her pride.



On the 12th we found the pride enjoying a large zebra stallion in Serengeti West. As the day progressed into the afternoon and less zebra was up for grabs we observed a rather surprising interaction between dominant lioness Phyre and lesser ranking Narnia. As Narnia moved onto the remaining ribs and spine after Kenge had had her fill Phyre edged closer onto the remains. We’ve often witnessed Phyre chasing Narnia away from kills and dominating the remains but today the tables turned. As Phyre snuck closer Narnia lashed out at her and threw herself over the meat guarding it. Narnia huffed and puffed ferociously and her bravery paid off as Phyre eventually backed down and moved away.

Narnia (nearest) & Phyre

Narnia (nearest) & Phyre

This sort of behaviour is to be closely monitored over the next coming months by returning researcher Kirsty Lynas who will be focusing upon kinship and consequent dominance levels amongst the pride females in conjunction with her Applied Animal Science BSc studies.

On the 14th we began to delve further into the question of what is instinct. Instinct is often a term frowned upon by academics, as being able to determine, explain or even understand what instinct is, is very complex. Most agree that any taxa and individual animal will demonstrate instinctive behaviours such as the instinct to feed, to mate, to fight, etc; those basic behaviours required for survival. But what about those more complex behaviours? The instinct to be social, to defend a territory, to play or to avoid and/or understand what a predator or competitor is?

Within the Ngamo release site our pride are yet to encounter competitors such as hyena. Hyena pose a formidable threat to the lions and are often considered the lion’s mortal enemy. Research upon those lion prides and hyena clans in the wild have provided further insight into the battle that often rages between these two species, and what is known as kleptoparasitism.

Both lions and hyenas will scavenge from one another however success at this is mainly dependant upon the ratio of one species to the other. Should a pride male be present at a lion kill hyenas will generally steer clear to avoid what could be a fatal conflict. However if the alpha is not around and those hyenas outnumber the present lionesses by more than 3 to 1 the hyenas will likely win a conflict and successfully steal a kill.

The Ngamo pride have never encountered a hyena and as far as our research team is aware have never heard them calling. Since their release our captive born pride members have displayed all those instinctive behviours as demonstrated by wild prides but what about reaction to competitors? Is this something to be learnt? Or is the fear and hatred of their mortal enemies embedded within their instinct?

To test this theory we conducted a playback study similar to those territorial playbacks we have been carrying out each month. With all pride members present we had another vehicle parked out of sight outside the release site with speakers ready to play a series of hyena calls. The playback consisted of one hyena calling, or ‘whooping’ and a performing the infamous ‘laughing’ call often heard when hunting and/or feeding upon prey.

Our researcher had no idea what to expect in terms of any reaction from the lions but none-the-less was poised in suspense. The playback was sounded and instantly all the lions sat up to attention. All stared hard into the distance towards the calls and one by one began to rise. Milo and Nala where the first to approach followed by Phyre, AT1, Narnia, the cubs, Kwali, Ashanti and Kenge at the back. Once they reached the fence line all the curious cats sat listening intently until silence fell again over Ngamo. This reaction was more than what our researcher expected, and then some! So many questions have arisen from this 2-minute experiment that the mind boggles! Did the lions recognize the call to be that of a carnivore, a predator or a competitor? Did they recognize the call to be of hyenas feeding therefore an opportunity for them to scavenge? Did they even understand what a hyena was?! This strong reaction certainly did indicate a level of understanding or the dreaded word ‘instinct’.

We hope to continue this study further and also test their reaction to other competitors and predators such as leopard.

Narnia - alert to the sounds of hyena



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