While “king of the jungle” may be an inaccurate title for savanna-dwelling cats, lions are clearly one of the planet’s most dominant predators. During their evolutionary ascent to the throne, lions have evolved several adaptations, including fearsome dention, sharp claws and pack hunting skills. While less celebrated, lions' ears exhibit several noteworthy adaptations and help the lions to stalk prey, avoid danger and communicate with each other.
Listen Where You Are Walking
Lions (Pantera leo) have excellent hearing and rely on it heavily when stalking prey, which may be obscured by dense vegetation. However, as many of their prey species have good eyesight, lions cannot allow their ears to betray their camouflage. Accordingly, lions have evolved relatively rounded ears that feature shaggy fur, which helps to keep their ears hidden. Lions also feature black markings on the back of their ears, which may help these pack hunters to follow each other through the tall grass.
Keep Your Ears on a Swivel
Lions can swivel and rotate their ears to orient them toward the direction from which a sound originated. While adult lions have few predators, young cubs are at great danger from spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), cape hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus) and other lions, mobile ears allow cubs and their guarding mothers to better detect approaching predators without moving their bodies and giving away their location.
Listen to Your Father
Lions are the most social cat species, and their hearing plays a significant role in intraspecific interactions. Both male and female lions roar to defend their territories. Though these roars may sound similar to humans, lions can hear subtle differences in the calls of other lions, allowing them to determine the gender and size of the roaring conspesific. Additionally, females can distinguish between the calls of familiar and transient males. This is important, because transient males often kill cubs that were sired by other males. When tested in the field, mother lions would gather their young close to them when scientists played recorded roars of unfamiliar males.
Spooky Sounds in the Distance
Lions rely on their hearing to alert them of potential danger lurking beyond their line of sight. While a pride of lions is a well-defended lot, strange sounds can cause anxiety in the group. This is true even among lions in captivity. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums warns lion keepers that it is important to monitor the sounds in and around lions’ cages. Loud or unusual sounds can agitate and stress an entire pride.
- Animal Diversity Web: Panthera Leo
- University of Minnesota: College of Biological Sciences: Do Acoustic Features of Lion, Panthera Leo, Roars Reﬂect Sex and Male Condition?
- American Society of Mammalogists: Panthera Leo
- LionAlert.org: Physiology
- Association of Zoos and Aquariums: Lion (Panthera Leo) Care Manual
- Proceedings of the Royal Society: Female Lions Can Identify Potentially Infanticidal Males From Their Roars
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images