Field Guide Training Blog 2 – by Candice Browne
Lions are often feared by tourists as extremely ferocious animals. You may also get that impression when casually looking at the photo below.
This pic was snapped on one of our Safari Guide Training drives at Limpopo Field Guiding Academy (LFGA).
If we were to take this photo out of context, which I am going to do for the purpose of this demonstration, this lioness does appear to be angry and any unknowing observer oblivious to the Ethology (animal behaviour) in the greater context of this situation, would most likely be fearful of her.
The truth is that yes, in terms of Ecology, lion are apex predators and hence often occupy top spot on the Trophic Pyramid, a diagrammatic representation of the flow of energy in an ecosystem.
Lion can be Secondary or Tertiary Consumers depending on which species they prey on. As a consumer, they are unable to produce their own food source to support their metabolic energy requirements and thus need to hunt to survive. They prey on a variety of prey species, depending on their needs, mostly feeding on medium to large ungulates (hoofed mammals).
They form a very important role in the ecosystem, as without Top Consumers such as lion, the populations of Primary Consumers (Herbivores – grazers feeding on plant matter such as grasses; and browsers feeding on plant matter from trees) would exceed carrying capacity.
These are all very interesting topics that form part of our Nature Guide Training.
We were extremely blessed to witness this display of animal behaviour in our first week of FGASA Training at LFGA. We were out on our afternoon game drive when we chanced upon 3 lions (2 females and 1 male). One of the best parts for me about LFGA and their trainers, is that they let the bush do the talking at first and allow us as students to observe the situation, before thoroughly interpreting and teaching us what is actually going on, thereby training us the best in the methodology a guide can have.
This interpretive training method also makes it so much easier to retain the information once having practically observed it, rather than just learning textbook facts. They are also extremely ethical in their Nature Training and have an unwavering respect for the environment and the animals above all else.
When we arrived at this particular sighting, the 3 lions were lying down having a nap, as lions so often do in the heat of the day. The male then sat up and pulled this strange facial expression, appearing as if he was yawning, or possibly warming up to roar.
When lions feel threatened, typical behaviour includes lowering the head, flattening ears and flicking the tail. In neither of these photos are either of these lions displaying that behaviour. We were thus at the correct ethical distance from them in order to observe their natural behaviour.
The second female, then got up and moved a distance away, giving this “honeymoon couple” their space.
What the male was in fact doing, was displaying the Flehmen Grimace. This is usually performed by males trying to detect the readiness of the females to mate. They tilt their heads upwards, and stretch their neck forwards. The top lip is pulled up and backwards, exposing the upper teeth and gums. The mouth is open and nostrils wrinkled. This exposes the animal’s vomeronasal organ (also known as the Organ of Jacobson) which is a sensory organ in the palate. The Jacobson’s Organ is used to analyse the pheromones in the females urine, and hence her readiness to mate. The male got up and walked around the female, and she signalled her readiness by exposing herself to him. He then mounted her and the very quick mating ritual was performed, after which he lay down again.
Let’s now relook the lioness and her expression in the first photo and put it back into context, knowing the behaviour that we had just observed. She was, in fact not angry or uncomfortable with our presence in any way.
Females are also known to grimace, using their Jacobson’s Organ to detect the urine of other lions, and in this case, most likely testing the urine scent left by the second female.
This is not only a good lesson in Ethology, but also a good lesson in not “judging a book by its cover”.
Whether you are busy with Game Ranger Training or any other application involving Dangerous Game behaviour, it is important to observe the body language and facial expressions of the animals, in order to determine safe viewing distances.
These pics were taken from a vehicle at a distance of 30 metres, and although the female is making eye contact at the moment the pic was taken, she displays no signs of disturbance.
Stay tuned for more interesting info from the Limpopo Bushveld!