The Ecology of The Lion King (With Lion Specialist Maria Gatta)

Image Credit: Wade Tregaskis, CC BY-NC 2.0, Image Cropped.

If there’s one film that I could perhaps credit for sparking my fascination with the natural world, the it’s The Land Before Time. BUT if we’re going with films that do not feature the most gangly Pachycephalosaurids you ever did see, then it has to be The Lion King. The sweeping landscapes, the (at times literal) fountains of species, the Shakespearian drama, the poor understanding of trophic cascades – it’s got it all.

I’ve written before about the ecological themes that are present in The Lion King, most recently in the context of the 2019 remake (let’s not go there right now). But during a recent revisit of the film in our ecology-themed movie podcast Cinematica Animalia, I got to interview Maria Gatta, a conservation biologist who spent time in Kenya studying lions. So let’s have a closer look at the lions themselves.

Scar and Mufasa

Even as a kid, I couldn’t help but wonder why Scar was even allowed to stick around Pride Rock. Yet as Maria explains, it’s really not that uncommon for brothers to take over a pride together: “Usually males between the age of 2 to 4 years old will be kicked out… Because they’re young, male teenage lions start to get too rowdy. The father does not want to have that problem, and eventually competition, in his own pride.”

Hopefully the lions who get kicked out have other male siblings their own age, who they can join up with and spend a hard few years out in the wild. Then, perhaps after joining forces with some other lions and building their strength up, they can move in and take over their own pride as a group. So Scar and Mufasa having teamed up to take over this pride is very much a possibility.

What is odd, Maria points out, is that they’re at odds: “Male lions that form a coalition are actually pretty cosy to each other, particularly in smaller coalitions like groups of two… I saw it myself when I was doing research, male lions in a coalition spend far more time together with each other than they do with the females or the cubs. They just go hang out by themselves.”

Especially in a pride with only two male lions, Scar would have had his fair share of the food and the females. And as Maria puts it, “let’s be honest, that‘s most of the things that male lions care about, mating and food”. So the animosity between them isn’t wholly sensible.

The Line of Succession

The idea of Simba taking over Pride Rock one is the driver of Scar’s jealousy, but it’s obviously not really how lion succession works. Simba would absolutely be able to take over his own pride eventually, but coming back to a pride filled with his own mother and his sisters is not ideal. Many species will end up mating with family members if there’s no other option, but they usually try pretty hard to avoid it.

Speaking of genetic material, the attempted disposal of Simba is one of the more realistic aspects of the film. Male lions who have taken over a pride generally will try to remove their predecessors’ young, as it takes energy and time away from the raising of their own offspring. This is a trait we see in a lot of species, including those ‘peaceful’ zebras you see at the start of the film (hot tip: zebras are the absolute worst).

“Slobbering, mangy, stupid poachers”

Are hyenas the villains they’re made out to be in this film? “No not at all.” insists Maria. “[The depiction was] very very unfair, and its imprinted into lot of peoples minds that hyenas are these mean, ugly creatures when they’re nothing like it. I’ve seen them in real life and they’re intelligent, amazing, and they’re really beautiful too.” Hyenas have unfortunately long been associated with evil spirits in many cultures. Yet when considering Western audiences, it’s an interesting question to ponder – was The Lion King a product of their association with evil, or has that since been imprinted on us by the movie itself?

Lions, on the other hand, get a dazzling portrayal throughout the film, which Maria refers to as an “idealised and anthropomorphised depiction”. It’s a problem that any predator specialist will bring up – “in reality lions actually share a lot of their space with other large carnivores… lions are not the king of the savannah nor the jungle, they very much have to share and adapt, and so do the other carnivores.”

The reality of life among lions is that they spend a lot of time sleeping, and/or stealing prey from other species. This is a fact that is much to the chagrin of many amateur lion enthusiasts, as African Wild Dog specialist Dr. Dani Rabaiotti a few years back when she sent out the below Tweet about the reality of lion biology on Twitter. You can read an excellent breakdown of the ensuing debacle at Lady Science.

If you’d like to hear more from Maria, as well as my fellow co-hosts’ take on the biology of The Lion King, check out the episode below! You can also follow Maria on Twitter @M_Gatta.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and would be lion if he said he’d never been mean to a hyena. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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