The Lion

With the recent release of the live-action Lion King movie trailer and the next episode of Dynasties focusing on a pride of lions airing later tonight, I thought this fascinating feline would be a perfect species to talk about today. The lion (Panthera leo) is Africa’s apex predator and the only cat that lives in groups, known as prides. A lion pride usually consists of a few males, related females and cubs although as the males grow up, they will leave the pride and establish their own family elsewhere.

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Lion prides are exceptionally loving and intimate; they try to keep their bonds strong.

Once upon a time, lions roamed across a vast portion of the Old World; from Greece to India. However, lions have since been eradicated from Europe and only a small population of Asiatic lions remains in the Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat, western India. African lions, which once roamed throughout the continent, are now only found in certain hotspots dotted across sub-Saharan Africa. They are mainly found in grassy plains and savannas, especially areas with large trees, such as acacia trees, that provide a nice bit of shade to keep the lions cool.

Lions are sexually dimorphic – this means that males and females exhibit different characteristics, aside from their genitalia. The main difference in lions is that males develop a thick mane as they grow up whereas females do not. Both sexes display a remarkable, golden coat and a muscular build, sometimes faint spots may be seen on their legs and underparts which they acquired when they were a cub.

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A lion cub displaying their faint spots adapted for camouflage.

Males usually take on the role of defending the pride’s territory whilst females do most of the hunting. Groups of females will often work together to bring down large prey – usually ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as plains zebra, blue wildebeest, Cape buffalo, Thomson’s gazelle, gemsbok and even giraffes. After a group hunt, the pride will squabble over the kill, with those at the top of the social order getting first pick whilst those at the bottom of the pecking order (cubs) will have to sit and wait their turn.

Although lions are an apex predator, that doesn’t mean they will pass on a free meal. As opportunists, they will occasionally steal kills from hyenas or wild dogs. Lions and spotted hyenas occupy a very similar ecological niche, and that results in a lot of competition between these two species. These two carnivores will often fight each other for meals and territory, causing some nasty injuries. If you watch Episode 3 of Dynasties at 8pm later tonight (GMT+0), you will see how the competition between these two fierce species can lead to some rather gruesome scenes.

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An image of pure majesty.

Life as a lion is not easy. But on top of all their natural threats, they also suffer at the hands of us humans. Habitat loss and conflict with local people are their major threats and they are thus listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Lions are such adaptable hunters that they will seek out livestock in local villages, and the locals often respond with violence. Lions play such a crucial role in our global culture – in sculptures, in films, in paintings, in literature, in sport and in national flags. They are the quintessential image of bravery, resilience and collaboration. Therefore, lions must be protected and appreciated because they are truly wonderful creatures.

The Emperor Penguin

Running with the Dynasties theme, I decided that today I would write about the world’s largest penguin – the emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri). Endemic to Antarctica, the emperor penguin is a near-threatened species which lives in huge colonies on the Antarctic ice and in the surrounding waters. They are the only penguin which breeds in winter and during their breeding season they form breeding colonies with thousands of individuals.

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Adult males and females are similar in size, reaching up to around 45 inches tall. They have a fascinatingly beautiful plumage with a black head and back juxtaposing their white belly. Most noticeably though, they have those distinctive, bright-yellow ear patches which slowly fade into a paler colour further down the penguin’s chest.

These penguins have a tough time caring for their young. During the bitter polar winters, females will lay a single egg and males will incubate this egg whilst the females go out in search of food for the youngster. Their diet consists predominantly of fish, crustaceans and molluscs but the proportions of this prey will vary between different areas.

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The breeding season is a gruelling but rewarding time for these penguins.

For me, the most captivating thing about these birds it their wonderfully unique adaptations – a testament to the unbelievable power of evolution. First of all, a structural adaptation is the shape of their body; it is perfectly streamlined to glide through the ocean with little resistance. Moreover, to cope with the freezing polar temperatures, they have evolved a thick layer of fat and dense feathers which help to reduce heat loss. However, their thick blubber impedes their movement on land – that’s partly why they waddle around like drunk teenagers. One of their most obvious adaptations is the way they huddle together to conserve their warmth and escape from the winds of winter. The emperor penguins take turns being on the perilous edge of this crowd so no one is left exposed to the elements for too long.

Yet another adaptation is the way they survive the immense ocean pressures when they go for deep dives, these dives can last for over 20 minutes and these penguins can plummet down to 1,850 feet deep (deeper than any other bird)! During these dives, the emperor penguin’s oxygen use is greatly reduced as their heart rate drops from 70 beats per minute at resting rate to 20 beats per minute. In addition to this, their non-essential organs are shut down, meaning oxygen can be focused on their vital organs, allowing for longer dives. I could go on about this bird’s magnificent adaptations but I would be here for quite a while because there are so many.

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When underwater, these birds are agile torpedoes.

Sadly, in 2012, the emperor penguin was uplisted from least concern to near-threatened by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Their threats include habitat loss, industrial fisheries, disease, human disturbance (particularly unsustainable tourism) and most significantly, climate change. Global warming is melting the sea ice where they live. The current loss of their habitat is not sustainable and it is not slowing down. The protection and conservation of these penguins, and all other threatened species in fragile habitats, requires a global effort.

Tonight, at 8pm (UK time, GMT+0) the second episode of Dynasties airs where Sir David Attenborough will be narrating a no-doubt thrilling story about emperor penguins and the daily struggles they endure on the continent of Antarctica.

The Common Chimpanzee

With the first episode of Sir David Attenborough’s new series, Dynasties, airing this evening, I thought it would be appropriate to write about the focus of today’s episode – the chimpanzee. The common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) is a great ape found in dry and moist forests and savanna woodlands across West and Central Africa. As many of you will know, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing more than 98% of our DNA. It is utterly fascinating to me that we are so similar to chimps. However, it is also utterly terrifying that we have let such an incredible species become endangered – habitat loss, poaching and disease are constantly pressuring the chimpanzee population.

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A chimp wisely pondering in the canopy.

It is depressingly unfathomable to me that we are slowly killing this species – our own common ancestor. Chimpanzees are highly intelligent creatures meaning they experience pain. They experience suffering. To think that we are letting one of the most intelligent animals on earth (a species which is even capable of learning human sign language) gradually go extinct is horrifying.

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A mother playing with her child.

Homo sapiens and chimpanzees share the family Hominidae, along with the bonobo, two species of gorilla and three species of orangutan. Chimpanzees are slightly larger than their cousin the bonobo, weighing up to around 65kg. In the wild, they live to around 35-40 years old (depending on their location and other factors) and can live even longer in captivity. They are covered in course black hair, with bare patches on their face, hands and feet.

Chimpanzees are social animals. They live in troops which can contain over 100 individuals, but usually their groups include between 20 and 50 members. These societies have strict, hierarchies, with a dominant male nearly always at the top.  These primates are terrestrial and arboreal, walking on all-fours when on the ground and using their long arms to swing from tree to tree when in the canopy. Amazingly, chimps are one of the few species that uses tools regularly. For instance, they may use rocks to smash open nuts or use sticks to scoop delicious honey out of bee hives!

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A chimpanzee troop enjoying a Sunday dinner.

The common chimpanzee, like us, is omnivorous, consuming a varied diet of fruit, plants, seeds, insects, eggs and meat. They will hunt small-to-medium sized mammals, including other primates using a highly complex and ingenious hunting method. During a hunt, each chimp is assigned a role: ‘Drivers’ (these initiate the hunt and drive their prey forward), ‘Blockers’ (these are positioned below the canopy and race up the trees to block off any strays), ‘Ambushers’ (these hide and ambush prey if they come too close) and ‘Chasers’ (these rapidly move in to make the final catch).

As you can see, chimpanzees are truly magnificent animals and we should be proud that we share a lineage with such spectacular creatures. But as I mentioned, the common chimpanzee is considered endangered by the IUCN, and their population is estimated to be less than 300,000 individuals – an insignificant number when compared to the current human population of 7.7 billion (an estimate made in November 2018 by United Nations). Their population trend is not looking good so we must act before it is too late.

If you’re interested to find out more about the complexly fascinating lives of chimpanzees, make sure you check out Dynasties this evening at 8:30 pm (UK time – GMT+0) on BBC one.

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Sir David Attenborough’s new BBC documentary.

The Leopard

This adaptable, wonderfully camouflaged big cat has a large distribution – found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. The leopard (Panthera pardus) is the most widespread of the five species in the genus Panthera. Despite their wide range, they are vulnerable, particularly in parts of Asia, and their population is on the decline mainly due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

Leopard

Leopards have a distinctive and beautiful golden coat, covered with black spots and rosettes (rose-shaped spots). This spot pattern is unique to each individual, allowing different leopards to be identified. Leopards are often confused with jaguars since they share this black pattern of spots, however, jaguars usually have rosettes with spots within them whilst leopards do not. Melanism is a recessive trait found in some leopards which can result in melanistic leopards, more commonly known as black panthers. These individuals appear to be almost completely black and their black spots are often hidden by the charcoal coat.

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A melanistic leopard, also known as a black panther.

These predators are usually nocturnal hunters and they will stalk their prey in the tall grass before pouncing. Their carnivorous diet mainly consists of antelope but they will usually take whatever they can get because they are opportunistic hunters. After making a kill, leopards will often use their muscular build to haul their meal up into a tree – protected from scavengers such as hyenas or other leopards.

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A female leopard and her cub.

The leopard is split into many subspecies, many of which are critically endangered. There estimated to be fewer than 250 Javan leopards left in the wild, whilst the Amur leopard population has around 60 individuals and the Arabian leopard even fewer than that. Their former range has dramatically dwindled in the last century and leopards are struggling to cope with this change. Leopards are undeniably stunning creatures with their own unique personalities and behaviours. They play a key role in African and Asian ecosystems and therefore their conservation is vital.