About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills that complemented his Honours degree in Zoology meant that he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the ...

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21 Comments

on Can Lions Count?

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Gawie Jordaan
Senior Digital Ranger

Difficult to explain James.. I would say our own intelligence would like to understand & nature proves again and again it can’t be fully understood. Something that fascinates me, is how a lion or leopard can find their way to exactly where a den site or kill is. Even after being very far away sometimes..

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Gawie,
Do you mean find their way back? It’s an interesting one.
I mentioned how humans have imaginations, or the ability to conceptualise things that aren’t necessarily real, and this accelerated our evolution. Thinking about it now, lions and leopards must have some kind of mapping in the their head, or at least some type of spatial awareness that lets them know whereabouts they are in their territory, but I don’t know what form it takes. Is it a picture in their mind or is it simple visual recognition of landmarks?
What do you think?
Best
James

Gawie Jordaan
Senior Digital Ranger

Part of it is most likely visual. As they can recognise visual aspects ( for example the land rovers they are viewed in). Or possibly taking snapshots of their environment? I also think they have to rely strongly on their noses, ears & a strong instinct. But what is INSTICT exactly? I find it remarkable that they “know”!

Joanne Wadsworth Kelley
Master Tracker

I can’t begin to theorize “how” the Lionesses know these differences, especially with 13 Cubs to gather and control But it’s a good topic to consider. I just assumed they visually recognized them when dealing with only 2 or 3….that along with their scent. Oh well, throw that theory out the window! What I do know, James, is that you took some great cub images that I enjoyed!

Marinda Drake
Master Tracker

This is interesting James. I follow Derek Joubert on Twitter. The last few weeks he posted about two lion pride at Duba Plains. Two very tiny cubs from the one pride got seperated from the mother. They somehow joined the other pride with much older cubs. Luckily they eat meat. The older cubs bullied them, but they survived. The mother of the lost cubs were still close by. The little male managed to get back to the mother after a few days. The little female is still with the adopted pride. It look as if the pride female accepted her and started grooming her as well. Derek Joubert also think that males stand a better chance if survival as the mother seem to care more for them.

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Marinda,
Fascinating stuff. I think we’re only scratching the surface when it comes to lion behaviour…
Best,
James

Jeff Rodgers
Senior Digital Ranger

Incredibly interesting concept. Have you or the other Rangers noticed similar behavior for Leopards or Cheetah?

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Jeff,
With Cheetahs I can’s say since we so rarely see cheetah cubs on Londolozi, but I would imagine given how closely they stick together it would be a case of all-or-nothing, and the mother would notice immediately when one was missing.
Leopards for the most part have smaller litters than lions, and their litters don’t integrate with others, so it is probably easier for them to register if one isn’t there. I know that as the cubs get older they spend more and more time apart, sometimes a good few hundred metres. We recently watched the Nhlanguleni female moving with just one cub along the river. She killed a bushbuck then fed for the day, and her lack of concern about the second cub was slightly worrying, but the next day the second cub was with the other on the kill. I think leopards’ more independent nature means that it will take longer for the mother to register if something has happened to one of her litter.
Best,
James

Robin Kessler
Explorer

Interesting. Recently on SL in the Kenya, a Sausage Tree Pride Cub was lost for some days, and then found by the mother. Perhaps it took longer for her bell to ring? Likely her second litter, so maybe experience develops that bell.

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Robin,

Very interesting, thanks for the info. Experience may well play a role.

Sarah Lambert
Explorer

http://www.bbc.co.uk/earth/story/20150826-the-animals-that-can-count
Interesting article- lions seem to be able to tell if they are outnumbered or not anyway

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Sarah,
Interesting article on animals that can count. However, I do have to disagree with one of the statements made in the lion section, in which it says, “They attack and defend against other prides, but only if they outnumber them”. I’ve seen outnumbered lionesses go in against superior numbers and rout the other pride, so I think it has to do with a lot more factors than just numbers. Age, territory, presence of cubs… I’m not discounting the counting ability (bit of a mouthful, that) but I know that in that specific example, it’s not just just based on numbers, and that’s coming from almost a decade of observations in the wild.
I know Derek Joubert states that in hyena vs lion conflicts, it generally comes down to biomass of the respective sides to decide the outcome, which is not easy for the individuals involved to calculate at first glance, and actual engagement might be necessary.
Whatever the case, it still makes for a fascinating discussion.

Best regards

Johanna Browne
Explorer

I often wonder at why humans have the need to believe they are more intelligent, more sensitive or even more aware than animals? It actually is the opposite. Humans differ in their need to change their environment while animals live in, appreciate and make the most of the present. I realize you have a degree in zoology. I highly recommend reading the books of your fellow countryman, Lyall Watson who had a degree in zoology, botany, biology, anthropology and ethology. His book “Elephantoms” speaks of the elephant’s intelligence. Some people say he “made his stories up” but I know, as I have experienced in my life many similar events, that he didn’t. As director of the Johannesburg zoo at 23 he was a brilliant individual. Having an open mind means having the ability to greater experiences with our brethren the animals. Trying to estimate what they are doing while underestimating their intelligence will always limit our perception. They have a great deal to teach us, if we let them 😉

James Tyrrell
Photographic Guide/Media Team

Hi Johanna,
Thanks for the comments.
I’ve read Elephantoms many times; one of my absolute favourite books! Your last line is very pertinent, “if we let them” being the operative phrase.
I think we can learn from most animals, no matter what their intelligence levels!
Best regards,
James

Johanna Browne
Explorer

Agreed! Even humans!

Wendy Macnicol
Senior Digital Ranger

Dear James. I am inclined to agree with the “missing bell” theory. Perhaps each cub has a slightly different smell and when Mom is missing out on a particular smell, she may go and look for that cub. Or, as you say, it could be facial recognition. Interesting thought …… So much we just don’t know. Wendy M

I’m not sure about that James… I read yesterday where some lizards are intelligent and can count. If lizards can, why not lions. lol

Victoria Auchincloss
Senior Digital Ranger

I agree, I don’ Know if lions can count, but they certainly would be helpful especially if you have 13 cubs in total. Based on my experiences with my 2 boys, math would be good! They are all so adorable we don’t want to lose one. Victoria

Fain Zimmerman
Explorer

Thank you for this article and the others I’ve read! I love to hear the stories. I believe lions, like many other animals, identify their offspring by smell and facial recognition. They are much smarter than many people give them credit for!

Denise Vouri
Guest contributor

I had to think about your blog for a bit. It brings up some very thought provoking questions and theories. I recently viewed the first episode of David Attenborough’s series, Dynasties. Brilliantly filmed and narrated. It is the story of a pride in the Masai Mara, highlighting a female that has recently given birth and following her life raising these cubs. Whilst I don’t believe they count their young or even other species, I agree they have an inate sense of knowing if their cubs are accounted for as well as sizing up theirs foes in the case of protecting their family. I was mesmerized by the footage of her defending her cubs against a pack of hyenas, all by herself. Her sister went missing and she took on the care of her cubs as well. I believe animals are extremely smart, in ways we may never understand, but that’s okay. Let our imaginations take us to places that further conversations, research and perhaps man can live with our natural animals in a more symbiotic way.

Aubren Lewis
Explorer

You know, I think the answer is more simple than it appears. I’m an only child, but I’ve heard *plenty* of stories from families with 3+ siblings of one sibling being forgotten. And I know that I go back for things that aren’t there all the time- just weird brain stuff, sometimes called brain farts, sometimes called being a ditz. There’s nothing unusual about it. And especially for lionesses- I imagine having litters every year or so is quite a different experience then a human mother, even with tons of kids. I’m sure the faces just blur together, and her brain might tell her to check for more cubs because that one year she had three. As I said, brain slip.

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