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.
- 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:
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
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
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
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
- Did you know in the 1970s. actor Tippi Hedren (probably most famous for her role in the Hitchcock classic, The Birds), her husband Noel Marshall, and their whole family lived with 150 untrained wild animals? And filmed it? Roar, released in 1981, became known as “the most dangerous movie ever made”—mostly because 70 members of the cast and crew were injured in its creation. Someone even got their scalp sliced clean off. New Yorker remembers the film here. The movie is somehow worse than you’re imagining.
- This headline from The Washington Post in 2017 says it all: “The strange and deadly saga of 15 circus cats’ final week in America.” Also, this history of the Indian circus from Quartz India is fascinating.
- Ever wonder what it’d be like to be a lion tamer? OK. Probably not. But one-third of Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control will make you glad you found out about lion tamer Dave Hoover. The other two-thirds of the movie are pretty weird in a good way, too.
- After watching the PopSci video short about Frasier the Sensuous Lion, you might start having questions about if it’s ethical to keep wild animals in captivity or not. This 2007 Radiolab episode about zoos is a must-listen, especially the first segment.
- PopSci found out if a lion could live on veggie burgers. Also, did you know that mountain lions are so scared of humans that the sound of talk radio sends them running?
- And, if you can stomach it, you can meet the deadliest cat in the world via a PBS Nature clip. It’s intense. Seriously. Turn back now. OK, you’ve been warned.
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