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The Zoo's Pride

Sidebar: Lion Research Roars on

Zoo scientist Budhan Pukazhenthi started a groundbreaking study of lion reproduction in 2005. It continues today under the leadership of Sarah Putman and now includes 38 lions from 20 different institutions. Putman has been studying more than 6,000 fecal samples and has only just begun to analyze the 16,000 data points she’s collected.

Ultimately she hopes to answer some important questions that have so far eluded scientists: How long is a lion’s estrous cycle? At what age does puberty start? Do lions breed all year or only during certain months? Do older lions experience reproductive decline? The answers to these questions will help animal care experts around the world better manage their lions.

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institure: aerial view

Luke, the Zoo's adult male lion (Mehgan Murphy/NZP)

And just as Putman’s comprehensive study will be the first of its kind, lion keeper Rebecca Stites is conducting a study that will mark another first for researchers. With the help of about 30 volunteers, Stites has collected behavioral data from the lions since May 2010. For six hours a day, seven days a week, volunteers record what the three adult lions are doing in their outdoor yard every four minutes. They note where the lions are in the yard, how close they are to one another, whether they’re engaging in common behaviors (like eating, sleeping, or drinking), social behaviors (like play or social grooming), demonstrating anxiety or interacting with one another or their environment in any way.

Stites hopes to pull together the most comprehensive portrait of lion behavior so that other zoos have a reference for their own lion pride management. Now that the cubs are out in the yard, they will also be brought into the study. Stites has begun to analyze the more than 12,000 data points she’s collected and says she will continue the observations until the cubs are a year old.

“When we were doing research for building a pride, this was the type of information that I was looking for, and I couldn’t find it,” Stites says. “This will play a direct role in our ability to understand their behavior and modify husbandry and management practices to enhance their captive lives. We can also use it to talk to our visitors about how lions spend their time in captivity compared to how they would spend their time in the wild.”

 

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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(1) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.