Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Exploring How Predators Hunt

By Jon Clark

A "Lion King" in his natural habitat. Photo by Jon Clark.
Predatory animals are a huge obsession for most children at some point. From that picture book about the cool T-Rex to watching “The Lion King” millions of times, we’re fascinated with the kings of the food chain. And let’s be honest, even as adults they’re still pretty neat to us. Why else take a grand safari adventure to see lions and other animals in their natural habitat? So to fuel that curiosity, below is a guide to how predators hunt. It might just help you understand animal movements and behavior for watching wildlife.


The basics of how predators hunt


Predators are, of course, animals that feed on other animals. These predators rely on the flesh of other animals as a resource for their survival and are highly skilled at finding and catching it. Predators sit at the top of a delicate food web, all components of which fit together to keep the environment balanced over time.

Different types of predators have four main hunting strategies for finding their prey. According to an article from Idaho Public Television, they are:

  • Chase: Think of an eagle diving for a mouse. This is chase behavior in predators. This method requires a delicate balance of hunting down food that provides enough energy and nutrition to offset the energy cost of running that food source down.

  • Stalk: For this method, think of an egret or crane standing motionless or walking slowly in water, and then lunging as a tasty morsel goes by. This method is a huge time sink for the animal as it moves from cover to cover getting incrementally closer to it’s prey. It also takes far less energy, however, as only a small burst of speed is required at the end. This means that these predators can often live off of smaller prey. 

  • Ambush: Lion researcher, George Schaller, watched a group of gazelles in the Serengeti. In order to access water, there was a patch of thick brush they would need to cross. As the gazelles entered the brush, Schaller watched as the lions hiding in wait, instantly ambushed and ate one of the gazelles. Due to their long manes and tan color, lions are nearly undetectable in such cover. The ambush requires a great deal of time, as it relies on other animals to wander into the area. For predators that have the patience, the success rates are quite high.

  • Teamwork: Think of wolves working as a pack to take down a deer. This is one of the most exciting ways of how predators hunt. Teamwork allows the animals to pursue large and fast prey, scoring large amounts of food for the group. This is arguably one of the most successful tactics as seasoned hunters can quickly steer their prey in the direction of the other party. Additionally, the energy required for the chase and kill can be dispersed across the collective group. 


Lions on the hunt


One of the coolest and most popular things to see on a safari is a lion in its own natural habitat. This mighty “King of the Jungle” hunts both independently and as part of groups. Lions hunt some of the fastest animals in the world, like the wildebeest, which can run at speeds of 50 mph. Lions themselves are not incredibly fast, so they’ve had to get smart through a variety of hunting strategies.

Because lions are also relatively lazy animals, they tend to eat larger animals – which sustain them for longer periods. These animals include antelopes, zebras and wildebeest.

A lioness. Photo by Jon Clark.

The female lionesses hunt the most often for both themselves and for the males. A lioness will stalk from cover to cover to get close to the prey animal, and then pounce at the last minute. Their prey usually has slower reaction times, so this is a solid method. If the prey sees them, the lion will act innocent by sitting up and staring off into the distance, as if to say, “I wasn’t doing anything.”

Another method lions use is to find a bush near where the prey goes often, like a watering hole, and wait until they can strike. Lions have been known to actually nap while awaiting their deadly ambush.

To catch large or fast prey, lions leverage their group numbers to help each other cut off the escape of fleeing prey. When lions decide to hunt in pairs and groups their success rate goes up from about 18 percent to 30 percent while hunting alone and in daylight, according to the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust.

When hunting in groups, lions stalk in a pattern to encircle the prey. Then some attack, driving the prey to other waiting lions. As the prey animal tires from the constant running, one or two lionesses will try to jump on the back of the animal or hang by their claws from a zebra's or gnu's or buffalo's back. This certainly makes it very hard for the poor animal to run away from the next lion, who goes for the throat to complete the hunt. It’s one of the smartest and most effective ways for how predators hunt.

Hungry cubs waiting for lunch. Photo by Jon Clark.

Lions are known for their advanced hunting skills and have mastered the art of teamwork in all of their hunting strategies, including chasing, stalking, and ambushing their prey. Embarking on an African safari will be your best chance to experience these master hunters in real life.

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