We aren’t going to go too deeply into a discussion of the relative intelligence levels of the big cats here, but it struck me the other day that a grasp of basic arithmetic would be quite important in lionesses.
A couple of years ago Ranger Nick Sims (the original one, not the one here now. Yes there have been two Nick Sims working as rangers here in the last few years!) captured some amazing footage of one of the Tsalala lionesses carrying her cubs down the middle of the Manyelethi riverbed to a new densite amongst some huge boulders:
She had two cubs in that litter, and after carrying the second cub to the new site, it was assumed that she would settle down with the pair and maybe nurse them, or at least help them become familiar with their new surroundings. Instead, the lioness re-emerged from the den and walked back up the river to the the original den. She sniffed around, and then finding nothing of interest, returned to the cubs a couple of hundred metres away.
Now, I don’t profess to know what was going on in her mind; she may well have had a valid reason for returning to the original den, but as far as I could tell, she was simply going back to fetch another cub. Given that this cub didn’t exist, there was nothing to fetch and so she simply went back to the original two.
It’s not often we see such an incredible sight as a lioness moving dens. In fact it’s hardly ever. But that example did cast a light on the question of intelligence vs. simple stimulus-response behaviour in lions. I will admit I am a subscriber to the latter theory, in that I believe lions are simply hyper-complex sensory organisms that are reacting to far subtler environmental cues than we have the capacity to detect or appreciate, which on many levels makes them appear more intelligent than they actually are. We can debate this another time, but when it comes to the matter of cubs, I would hope that a lioness would know how many she had, whereas it appeared (note: appeared, as I don’t know for sure) that the Tsalala female didn’t in the case I just mentioned.
Lionesses surely don’t have the capacity to grasp the concept of numerics, but they must somehow be able to know when all of their cubs are present or not.
Thinking back over sightings I’ve had – during each of which I probably wasn’t thinking of this as much as I am now – there have been multiple times in which I have seen lionesses return for cubs that have been left behind. I can also think of times when Lionesses haven’t gone back, or at least at first looked like they haven’t realised that cubs are missing.
The Ntsevu pride at the moment is raising 13 cubs between 4 lionesses, and we will often see a split in the cubs; some lionesses will take some this way, and some will take others that way. It hasn’t always been a case of each litter sticking together, and the division of cubs can at times (at least to us) seem rather haphazard. Some get left at one spot, some at another. It’s quite possible that in bigger prides, when the number of cubs can often be well over ten, it will take longer for concern to spark amongst the lionesses that all the cubs aren’t present.
Instead of counting, maybe it’s a case of facial recognition; lionesses can identify individual cubs in their own litter, and when a face isn’t ringing any bells – or to word that more specifically, when a specific bell isn’t being rung – that’s when a lioness gets agitated as she realises a cub is missing.
I still can’t work it out. Maybe some lionesses are smarter than others. perhaps some are simply better mothers. I certainly think it’s more likely that recognition is what their relationships and actions are based on, rather than an appreciation of an integer chain.
One of the main reasons theorised to have pushed the human race along so quickly in our evolution over the last 10000 years or so is the idea of imagination; we are able to conceptualise things that don’t exist. Without going into too much detail on how that works for us (read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari for more), it’s probably fair to say that lions are lacking in this department.
Stimulus-response. That – at least in my mind – is what they’re all about, as I doubt the Ntsevu females can count to 13…