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Lion tamer at work
Lion tamer at work. Though no evidence is available, the mustachioed man is unlikely to have survived this scene. Library of Congress, 1873

Popular Science’s WILD LIVES is a monthly video series that dives like an Emperor penguin into the life and times of history’s noteworthy animals. With every episode debut on Youtube, we’ll be publishing a story about the featured beasts, plus a lot more fascinating facts about the natural world. Click here to subscribe.

Feature Creature: Frasier the Sensuous Lion

Have you ever wondered about the number of lions at your zoo? You probably don’t think about lion reproduction too much. Well, consider this:

If one female lion in captivity has a litter of cubs and they all survive and breed—for reference: zoo lions can start breeding before their third birthday—and then those offspring all survive and breed, and then the next generation the same, and so on, it would take about 37 years until that one family tree of descendants from that one lioness needed to eat the entire population of Los Angeles every day just to survive.

Dr. Craig Packer, Professor and Head of the Lion Center at the University of Minnesota, originally came up with this thought experiment. He used it as a way to answer a question on if lions have any difficulty breeding in captivity or the wild. Clearly, no panda bear-type pornos are needed to stimulate mating here. This lion factoid came up during a conversation about a lion that actually did take over L.A. That prolific Panthera leo was named Frasier. In the video above, we tell his story.


Let us now praise other famous animals

Below, a collection of fast facts about famous critters.

Peruvian military helicopter emblem
Question: why does this Peruvian military helicopter emblem have a tiger on it—its tail around a missile—when there are no tigers anywhere in South America? Tom McNamara
  • Magicians Siegfried and Roy got their start in 1957 in Germany when Roy, who apparently took care of a cheetah at a local zoo, borrowed the animal and used it as part of the duo’s show. Nearly half a century later, their act came to an end when Roy was attacked by a tiger named Montecore onstage at the Mirage hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
  • In 2015, Cecil the Lion was killed by American dentist Walter Palmer. The 13-year-old lion was a popular attraction at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, known for his striking black mane and comfort with tourist vehicles. His fate drew intense news coverage, a flurry of celebrity tweets, and an impassioned monologue from Jimmy Kimmel. Read more. >>
  • In a recent book, No Beast So Fierce: The Terrifying True Story of the Champawat Tiger, the Deadliest Animal in History, author Dane Hucklebridge details the surprisingly methodical and incredibly blood machinations of a single Bengal tigress. Between 1900 to 1907, the Champawat man-eater stalked humans living in the villages of southern Nepal and, because tigers know no borders, eventually northern India. Along her route, she killed 435 people, making her perhaps the most murderous non-human animal in recorded history. Read more. >>
  • El Jefe the Jaguar is the last known of his species to be seen in the United States. The Panthera onca was spotted in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona, between 2011 and 2017.
  • In 2014, I accompanied a scientific expedition to a previously unexplored part of the Peruvian Amazon. When I boarded a military helicopter to get there, I noticed the design on the door pictured above. Why a tiger? There are no tigers anywhere in Amazonia. Well, first, there are no tigers or lions in Detroit, but that doesn’t stop the city from having those animals as their mascots. A member of the expedition clued me in, though, saying that across South America the Amazon Jaguar is often called “tigre” or tiger. And, let’s be honest, the tail around the missile is a nice touch.


Popular Science’s Encyclopedia of Big Cat Facts

The math of tiger stripes:

tiger stripes
How’d the tiger get its stripes? MATH! Pond5

Math might be able to predict the tiger’s stripes. Or, more accurately, mathematical rules likely work with biological processes to determine patterns on animals—the leopard’s spots, the horse’s dapples, and, yes, those beautiful black stripes that contour and bend around the tiger’s orange fur.

Famed World War Two codebreaker and British mathematician Alan Turing first theorized in the 1950s that spontaneous patterns emerge when “chemicals [react] together and [defuse] through tissue,” writes Ian Stewart in his 2017 book, The Beauty of Numbers in Nature. These chemicals are also known by another name: morphogens, a term Turning coined. We should think of them as shape creators.

Over half a century later, scientists found support for these theoretical models in the real world. A 2015 study published in Cell Systems used them to take Turing’s theories a step further to explain pattern orientation. Think about it, if math can predict an animal’s spots and stripes, why couldn’t it also tell us why a tiger’s stripes are vertical and an okapi’s stripes are horizontal? The most abstract level of mathematics can play out in the day-to-day lives of the biological world. Read more about the study, this way. >>


The Saber-toothed cat

pre-historic animals
Los Angeles looked a lot different 10,000 years ago. Teratornis birds, saber-toothed cats, and an extinct species of horse all roamed around the La Brea Tar Pools. Fall in and you’ll be preserved forever! Field Museum/Charles R. Knight, 1921.

How long did it take for Smilodon fatalis—the saber-toothed cat—to grow their 7-inch long mouth swords? Well, the extinct feline’s fearsome canine teeth grew at an incredibly quick 6 mm per month, almost twice as fast as human fingernails.

(Oh, and that picture is by way of famed early 20th Century natural history painter Charles R. Knight, who was legally blind. Some of his paintings are hidden like Easter eggs on random walls at The Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.)


How climate is changing animals

Snow Leopard
Snow Leopard, Panthera unica. Joel Sartore/Getty Images

This spotted and thick-coated Snow Leopard thrives in a Goldilocks zone between 9,800 to 17,800 feet in altitude across the Tibetan Plateau, a frigid, rocky region that offers wild goats and sheep as prey. But rising temperatures are pushing the zone higher, forcing leopards and their quarry up the slopes, fragmenting their habitats into isolated summits. Rising temps also pull in competing predators like common leopards, which previously avoided the chilly heights in favor of forested hunting grounds at lower elevations. Humans are moving in as well to graze their ­domesticated goats and sheep, which sometimes requires killing cats who get too curious about the flocks. Read more about animals reacting to climate change, this way. >>


Calls of the Wild

East African Cheetah
East African Cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus jubatus. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Tom McNamara

If you had to guess, what sound does a cheetah make? Lions roar. Tigers bellow and growl. And cheetahs…chirp? Yup. They also purr, hiss, bark, and even meow. It turns out, their chirp can mean a lot of things. Females, who are more solitary compared to males, chirp to attract mates. Yet both sexes also chirp when they’re distressed. Males do it if they get split up from their pack—and they chirp in celebration when the crew gets back together again. Same goes for mothers and their cubs. According to the National Zoo, “cheetahs may even be able to identify each other by the sound of their chirps.”


And, finally, rabbit holes I went down while researching this video

Daniel in the Lions' Den painting
What’s the lion equivalent of a rabbit hole? “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” is a 1614–1616 painting by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. National Gallery of Art

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