Updated: Aug 5
With the arrival of the new Lion King movie, we get to grips with why the biological diversity of species is staggering and incredible, and give you some tips for seeking out the wildlife wonders around you!
Most of us do not have reliable access to the plains of the Serengeti, which I have to admit is a bit of a shame. That said, however, the diversity of organisms living within our reach is honestly quite surprising, and here we will look at some of the species that make the Lion King film so interesting from a Biological standpoint, as well as a few special species that you, with a bit of luck, can find closer to home…
The East African Lion
Where else can we start? The species the films are actually about, the East African Lion, is a dominant predator of African Plains. This particular subspecies is thought to have diverged from West African Lions within the last 200,000 years, and this can be considered resultant of bands of tropical rainforest that formed areas of geographical isolation for different Lion populations.
Lions are apex predators and have a fantastically diverse diet, most commonly feasting on Zebras and other familiar species such as Giraffes, however the skills Lions exhibit when hunting in groups is something to be marvelled at. Between 1993 and 1996, it is estimated that Lions killed 74 Elephants in Chobe National Park. To put this into perspective, an adult male Lion can weigh up to 193kg, whereas an African Elephant can average up to 6 tonnes - roughly 30 times larger.
This illustrates just how effective a hunter the Lion is, especially in groups, and certainly a sight everyone would love to see one day in the plains and deserts of Africa.
From one notorious cat species, to another, the Spotted Hyena plays a considerable role in the Lion King films, credited with being ‘at war with lions’. In reality, this is absolutely true: the ecological significance of the inhabitation of the two species in a single geographical area is that they are in direct competition with each other for the same prey, and this leads to some pretty fascinating biology...
The distinct calls of the Hyena as they communicate to each other ring out over the plains when they have a kill. What is remarkable about this is that Lions recognise it, and will attempt to steal the carcass from groups of Hyenas. This has been been demonstrated in field experiments, where the call of the Hyena is played, and Lions have been seen to move towards the tapes playing the calls.
Hyenas became extinct in western Europe around 15,000 years ago, due to the decline in grasslands, although some scientists estimate the current population in Africa to be up to 47,000 individuals.
We move away now from those animals that kill their prey, to carrion eaters and one of the most extraordinary raptors to grace the plains – Ruppell’s Vulture. This declining bird is critically threatened, and feeds on the tissues and even bones of scavenged prey items. What makes this species so spectacular, though, is that it is the highest-flying bird in the world - being recorded flying 37,000 feet (11.3 Km) above sea level.
The feeding habits adapted by these vultures when they have young is also something only to be admired: they will fly almost 100 miles away from their nest to find food to feed chicks.
These birds do reach Europe occasionally, being recorded annually in both Spain and Portugal; they are, however, a very rare sight indeed.
Arguably one of the most popular animals to grace the African plains, the shy Meerkat makes its home in ‘gangs’ of up to 50 individuals, with tunnel networks stretching considerable distances underground.
Many of you will be familiar with the classic image of Meerkats standing, watching for predators, and this is indeed what they do - as soon as a predator is spotted (such as a Jackal or Tawny Eagle), the Meerkat produces a warning bark or whistle to alert the other Meerkats into taking cover, and thus dodging potential predation.
Despite their paranoid behaviour, Meerkats are very effective hunters, feeding on insects as well as reptiles such as snakes and lizards and others such as small mammals. The amazing ability Meerkats have in terms of digging acts to help them find prey as quickly as possible, while also disorientating predators by throwing clouds of dust everywhere.
The Meerkat is definitely an underrated predator, and while they do come across as quite sheepish, they are capable of very efficient hunting.
A few to find in the UK….
I’m afraid the dominance of big cats and possessive worry of Meerkats is quite a way away from the ecology of the United Kingdom, but there are still wildlife treasures to be found. With a bit of luck and some local knowledge, you should be able to find all of the following species:
The male Bullfinch looks as if it really could be seen flying from tree to tree in the plains of Africa. In truth it is a relatively common species that inhabits woodlands up and down Britain. If you are very lucky and put sunflower hearts and other seeds out in your garden, you may even get these visiting you at some point
2. Common Blue
The Common Blue butterfly is the blue species you’re most likely to come across in the UK, although the Holly Blue is also relatively common in gardens. The sight of this butterfly is certainly one to enjoy when you’re walking through a meadow, and if the conditions are right for feeding, it may just settle down on a plant right in front of you!
3. Red Deer
The sight of an adult Red Deer Stag can be a daunting one, especially if you haven’t seen one in the flesh before. Britain’s largest land mammal can be found throughout the UK, Richmond Park in London being a great spot to catch up with these animals.
They start to breed during the autumn in what’s known as the ‘rut’. It is at this point that the clashing of males begins. Get out in the evenings and go in search of these Deer and you may be lucky enough to hear the roars and barks of males fighting each other to attract as many mates as possible.
And one rarity - this will take a bit of finding…
This bird does really inhabit the plains of Africa, flying to the Mediterranean for summer each year, and returning to spend the winter in Africa. It is truly a spectacular sight, only a handful being seen in Britain each year - you will not forget your experience when you see a Bee-eater for the first time. You probably won’t be alone when viewing one: as soon as one is spotted, hundreds of birdwatchers flock to get a glimpse (I am guilty of this myself when it came to a Bee-eater about an hour from me a couple of years ago).
When they do catch their prey (bees, as you would imagine, as well as other flying insects) they bash the body onto a branch to remove the sting, before swallowing down the rest.
So, if you feel you would like a bit of a challenge this summer, see if you can go out and find yourself a Bee-Eater. Failing that, try and enjoy a bit of our nature, and see what else you can find. Go on a walk through the woods or take a stroll through a meadow, because you are guaranteed to come across something exciting...
Blog Post Crafted by Joe
Joe is currently working towards his BSc in Biomedical Science at the University of Warwick.
When he’s not studying, Joe tutors GCSE and A Level Science subjects in his home city of Coventry.
Joe can often be found at ridiculous times in the morning, bird ringing and searching for interesting bird and butterfly species at his local nature reserve near Coventry, or venturing further afield to find rarities on the East Coast of Norfolk.