‘Mane’ lion expert at U explains predator behavior

by Alex Robinson

In 1985, biology professor Craig Packer learned just how dangerous it is to put the moves on a lion’s girlfriend.

Packer was in Africa attempting to attach a radio collar to a tranquilized lioness, when the lioness’s partner charged at him.

Although Packer was able to dash into his car, he said the incident was not the brightest moment of his almost 30 years of lion research.

“Hitting on a lion’s girlfriend when he’s right there – that was just dumb,” Packer said.

Since the close call, Packer hasn’t had any more problems with lions, but he has made some original discoveries.

Packer recently co-authored a paper about the way lions hunt and how lions’ social hunting affects the pride’s success.

He and three other researchers found that when predators hunt in packs, it actually reduces the impact they have on prey populations.

Many people have misconceptions about how lions hunt, Packer said. One lion usually brings down the prey and then has to share the meal with the rest of the pride.

Packer found that if predators hunted individually and spread out over a territory, they would kill more prey and be more efficient hunters.

This information could be applied to wolf packs in the United States, said John Fryxell, an integrative biology professor from Guelph University who was a co-author of the paper.

Fryxell said if game managers want to ensure populations of animals like elk and deer, they might have to rethink some of their strategies.

Culling a few wolves from a pack would only make the pack more successful because they wouldn’t have to share as much food, Fryxell said. Wolves hunting individually could overrun a prey population.

“We need to be more careful about not disrupting social units,” he said.

The discovery was not the first Packer has been a part of.

He has found that lionesses prefer male lions with dark manes and that lions can count the number of invaders moving into an area based on their roars.

University graduate student Bernard Kissui, one of Packer’s students, said the work professors do with lions often involves more field work than do other research topics.

“That’s very different from research that other professors are doing,” Kissui said.

Packer is currently working on ecology of the Serengeti National Park. He and his colleagues are looking at how plants, herbivores, predators and people interact.

Packer said while he enjoys his work, it isn’t always as exciting as it sounds.

Lions sleep for about 20 hours a day, which can make for a long day of waiting, Packer said.

“Sometimes you feel more like a geologist,” Packer said. “The frustrating thing is waiting for something to happen.”