Friday Weird Science: The Lion Eats Tonight

Jul 22 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

A weemahway, A weemahway...

You think too hard about this paper, you'll get this song in your head for the next few days. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Humans. We have a lot of fears, many of them somewhat justified. Heights, spiders, the scream mask. The dark. In Westernized countries a lot of these things are antiquated notions relegated to cheap horror movies with basically no relevance in the real world.

But what if some of our fears, some of the things we built stories on, DID come from something real? What if all of our strange superstitions about the full moon (werewolves, insomnia, insanity, loads of rumors about disease), were actually based in something?

And what if that something was lions!?

(Having never been up close and personal with a lion, my usual response is "awwww, big kitty!" But keep in mind that kitty isn't going to give you little love nips on the ends of your fingers.)

Packer et al. "Fear of Darkness, the Full Moon and the Nocturnal Ecology of African Lions" PLoS ONE, 2011.

This paper made a few headlines. I mean, why not? It's about LIONS. And the MOON. That makes it automatically cool.


So why lions, and why moons? Well humans have lived with predation for the vast majority of our evolutionary heritage. We've lived with the DARK for all of it. And most humans...well we aren't AFRAID of the dark. But we're WORRIED by the dark. A little psychologically uncomfortable with the dark. Most people might try to explain this because of their recent viewing of the Paranormal. But these authors wanted to see if there was any reason in particular for us to worry about the dark.

So they took records of ALL of the lion attacks in Africa between 1966 and the present. This is the point at which all lions began to be tracked using radio collars, and when they predated on humans, people checked to see if it was real predation or scavenging. And lion attacks in Africa are definitely still out there, over 1000 people have been attacked between 1981 and 2009.

Not only did they have the records of which lions were out there and where they were, after about 1978 they have recordings of the lion's BELLY SIZE. You might be like "lol fat lions", but really this is a good measure of how well the lions are eating. You can tell if a lion is hungry or not by how big its belly is.

And so they took the information about lion attacks, the information about belly size, and they threw it all in with MOON PHASE.

What you can see up there is a measurement of belly size (on the top), and frequency of daytime kills of desperation on the bottom, correlated with the phase of the moon. The deal is this. Lions like to hunt in the dark, at night. They have the most success at the dark of the moon, which you can see as their bellies are bigger. Toward the full moon, there's more light, the prey gets away, and lions go hungry, and you can see on the bottom that they are more likely to make moves of desperation during those times, attacking during the day or scavenging.

So how does this relate to humans? First, humans don't make the best prey. We travel in groups, we often carry weapons, and we're small and stringy. Not a lot of meat on most humans. We are definitely not the kind of prey a lion is going to choose when it has a choice. A lion who kills a human is either killing a very stupid human, or is a very hungry lion.

Second, it relates to when we're likely to be out. Most humans don't go out really late at night (definitely not in Africa). When we DO go out, we tend to go out mostly in the late evening, when we're more likely to be caught by nightfall. Most nights, around half moon, and approaching the full moon, the moon is already up at those times, there's enough light to see by, and it's not a big issue. But right AFTER the full moon...the moon comes up LATER. This means that in the days after the full moon there is a period of darkness between nightfall and moonrise. And this is when...the lions come.

You can see here the hours of the night on the bottom, and the days of the lunar phase on the side. The vast majority of lion attacks took place in the early night hours, but AFTER the full moon, when the moon was rising later and that early period of darkness was present.

That's a pretty eloquent summary graph of the lion attacks. You can see that the days after the full moon are definitely the most risky ones to be a human out in lion country.

So what we have here is an intersection between moons, lion behavior, and human behavior. The moon rises latest just after the full. The lions are HUNGRIEST just after the full, and the humans are out in the early evening, when, just after the full moon, they are likely to be caught in the dark. The authors hypothesize that this might be why there are so many superstitions about the full moon. They aren't really about the FULL moon, they are about the period after. And they aren't about fear of the moon, they are about fear of the DARK.

Packer, C., Swanson, A., Ikanda, D., & Kushnir, H. (2011). Fear of Darkness, the Full Moon and the Nocturnal Ecology of African Lions PLoS ONE, 6 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022285

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