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Lionesses love the mane. . . Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/digitalart/3240381175/">Art G</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Lionesses love the mane. . . Photo: Art G, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Natural Selections: Lion Manes

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Why would a heavy fur cape, like a lion's mane, be appropriate on a tropical savanna?

As with male fashion in humans, it appears the that the lionesses of the Serengeti like it--the thicker and darker, the better. Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk hair.

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Martha Foley: Tell me about this study of lion’s manes that you ran across. That the big, dark manes on lions are— I mean what is that about? Because it’s hot.

Dr. Curt Stager: Yeah. It’s hot, so why do these lions out under the hot, tropical sun –

MF: Just the male lions.

CS: The male lions, out on the Serengeti planes, out under the hot sun. Why do they have this big hairy thing on their necks, like wearing a giant wool scarf?

MF: Because it’s gorgeous!

CS: Yeah. Basically!

MF: I mean it’s beautiful. They’re very, very beautiful. Very virile-looking.

CS: Right, well, that’s exactly the point of the whole study. It involved sitting around watching lions; it was an evolutionary study. Instead of looking at fossils, it’s looking at real live stuff going on, and watching selection in action.

MF: They must be about the most observed creatures on the planet, those Serengeti lions.

CS: Yeah, this was an unusual study though, because it was a lot longer than normal. It went for 24 years, following several hundred lions, individually keeping track of who mates with whom, who’s got whose cubs, and what everybody looks like. So it’s very rigorous, and that’s unusual for studies of this kind.

MF: And they were looking at the lion’s manes?

CS: Yeah. Originally folks speculated, why do male lions have this big hairy mane on there, and one idea was maybe it protects them during fights. But, you know, other big cats don’t have that, so why don’t – you know? And plus, if you get bitten on the shoulder, what’s it really matter that much, compared to some other body part?

So, it looks like if you measure the effects of a mane on a male lion under the hot sun, it’s actually harmful. They went out with infrared photography and could see that the mane is this giant insulator around the lion’s neck.  

MF: So it keeps them too hot. It would keep them hot.

CS: It would keep them hot, yeah. And people even noticed that in these studies, the males with the bigger, heavier, darker manes actually have less functional sperm because of the heat effects. So, if it’s so bad for you, why do they have it?

. . .especially the thick dark mane. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/15745225@N00/497621999/">Arno Meintjes</a>< Creative Commons, some rights reserved
. . .especially the thick dark mane. Photo: Arno Meintjes< Creative Commons, some rights reserved
MF: Were they able to figure out why?

CS: Yeah, it’s basically what you said. That they look really good!

MF: They’re just gorgeous!

CS: The girls like it.

MF: Really? So female lions would gravitate toward the male lion with the big dark mane?

CS: Bigger, darker – especially darker. They like the ones that are almost black manes.

MF: It’s a fashion choice.

CS: Yeah. They put out lion models with the dark mane or light mane or whatever, and the females would sidle up to the ones that had the darker mane.

MF: No kidding.

CS: And there were behavioral differences. The darker manes were more likely to approach a recorded lion roar, let’s say, than the ones with the lighter mane.

MF: Does that mean they were more aggressive? Or more protective?

CS: They were more aggressive. They’re a lot more aggressive, and the lions with darker manes are better at protecting their cubs. So the cubs have better survival.

MF: Even though the sperm aren’t as vigorous as the light-maned…

CS: Right, it would counteract that whole effect, because they’re better at raising the kids, protecting them from others because they’re so aggressive. And other lighter-maned lions tend to stay away from the dark-maned ones.

MF: And this went on generation after generation? This fashion choice?

CS: Yeah, the fashion choice, and it holds true in other areas as well. It’s pretty neat. So it’s basically sexual selection instead of natural selection, counteracting something that would not make sense otherwise.

MF: Yeah, because there’s no common sense. It’s too hot, it’s this and that. So the natural selection sort of common-sense approach would be, that it would eventually disappear, because it’s not advantageous biologically. But sexually, it attracts the females.

CS: Actually, the term for it would be, it’s an honest indicator of good quality. If you can have such a heavy mane on in the hot sun and still be a real stud, then you’re the one I want.

MF: Yeah. So what does this tell us about the fashion industry, and display among humans?

CS: Yeah, you kind of wonder if maybe we have a little vestige of that ourselves. The more outlandish your styles…

MF: And you still survive.

CS: And you’re still around, you know? Maybe it’s considered a sign of quality as well.

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