The lion is king of the jungle: True/False?

Well, lions prefer savannah to jungle for a start, but that much is obvious to anyone in an age where a lion stalking wildebeest on a dusty plain to the accompaniment of David Attenborough’s breathless narration is just a channel-change away. I’m less interested in where they live than how they live — and they don’t live like kings, let me tell you.

If you got all your biology from nature documentaries and The Lion King you could end up thinking that lions are the top dogs (or at least top cats) on the savannah. They get the most coverage, are presented in the best light, and they are crop up throughout our culture as majestic and noble creatures.

The spotted hyena, on the other hand, was never going to cut a heroic figure. There’s all that laughing, for a start, cackling away as though they knocked back one too many glasses of the house red. They aren’t going to win any beauty contests, either (then again, neither are our royals). The enduring idea we have of the spotted hyena is of a cowardly scavenger, eating the crumbs that fall from the table of the king, as it were.

But neither species really deserves the reputation we have given them. Lions are not so good and hyenas are not so bad. The power relationship between lions and hyenas is quite even. Hyenas are not the cowardly scavengers of lions’ leftovers, instead the two groups compete with each other for live and dead meat. Hyenas and lions both hunt and both scavenge.

Spotted hyenas aren’t boring, either. They are highly intelligent. They have a complex social life which has been compared to that of our own ancestors. Their clans are matriarchal. To help accomplish this, female hyenas even have a false penis which helps disguise their true sex. Hyenas are just fascinating creatures, folks, yet it’s those overgrown pussy cats that keep stealing the spotlight.

Lions aren’t kings of the jungle, or even of the savannah. Like certain other African leaders, they have been forced to share power with their rivals.

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