The Tree Climbing Lions of East Africa

November 30, 2018

Their agility may not be quite up to par with their big cat cousin, the leopard, but the tree climbing lions of East Africa don’t seem to be giving up on this unusual behaviour.

For most prides of lion across Africa, tree climbing remains an uncommon behaviour. There are a handful of sites particularly in East Africa however, where tree climbing appears to be relatively common and often recurrent among specific prides.

Originally thought to only occur among prides in Lake Manyara National Park in southern Tanzania, tree climbing lions have also been found in the neighbouring Serengeti National Park as well as the Ishasha Sector of Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The underlying question about this phenomenon continues to go answered – why do these lion prides carry out this strange behaviour? Multiple theories have been offered up and yet no conclusive evidence points to any specific one.

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Ishasha Sector, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda © Fabian Echerey

Protection: Despite being one of the most dangerous animals, lions are not immune to the stinging bites of insects. It may be the case then that tree climbing gets lions far enough away from the long grasses where insects like tsetse flies and mosquitoes are found hovering around. Climbing trees may be a behavioural adaptation by lions to protect themselves both from irritation and disease. Trees, of course, also provide perfect refuge to escape charging buffalos that are trying to defend their young.

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Serengeti National Park, Tanzania © Chris Parker

Perspective: As difficult as tree climbing may be for an animal not naturally adapted to do so, there is a definite benefit to gaining some height, particularly when combing the grassy plains for prey. The branches of a tree give these lions an excellent vantage point from which to observe prey roaming in search of grazing opportunities and water. Furthermore, some researchers think that this behaviour is a response by the lions to declining numbers of prey in their particular habitat. The lions need to increase their home range and cover larger territories, which can be achieved to some degree by being able to look further.

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Serengeti National Park, Tanzania © Deborah Smith

Temperature regulation: Just as taking to the trees gets lions away from insects, they may have also found this to be a great way to escape the oppressive midday heat. As a cool breeze blows between the leaves and branches, this might be the best place to take nap without having to be constantly alert to their surrounds.

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Ishasha Sector, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda © Noel Reynolds

Whether lions climb trees for just one or all of these reasons, it is undeniably clear that they lack any natural tree climbing ability. Their slow and careful movement along the branches above the ground is akin to a beginner tightrope walker. Unlike the supremely agile leopard, lions manoeuvre themselves awkwardly around the trees awkward hesitance.

But it doesn’t look like this behaviour is going to stop anytime soon as it is believed that cross-generational learning is likely taking place in these specific prides. As young lions see older lions climbing trees, they mimic this behaviour and consequently reinforce it as a habit that remains within the pride. Perhaps, as with any skill, they will eventually master the art of tree climbing, becoming full adept and confident in balancing.

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Posted by tfhadmin


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