National Geographic Today
The iconic mane of a lion has always been a mystery to biologists. The wreath of fur is somewhat akin to wearing a woolen scarf at the peak of summera hot and heavy burden around the neck. Now two biologists suggest that these luxurious tresses have a higher purpose than vanity. They suggest that the manes themselves are indicative of health, and that males with the darkest, most decadent manes are the worthiest suitors.
The color and length of a lion's mane can vary dramatically in a relatively short time, said Craig Packer, veteran lion researcher at the University of Minnesota, and co-author of a report that is published in the August 23 issue of the journal Science. The great masses of hair can also vary greatly from one region to another.
"If a male goes through a rough period, his mane becomes lighter. If he becomes better nourished or lives in a different habitat, his mane may get a lot darker," said Packer. Dark color also indicates higher testosterone levels.
"So the flexibility of the mane tells us that it is probably an indicator of the male's qualitythis is incredibly important information for female lions," said Packer.
Peyton West, a graduate student working with Packer at the University of Minnesota, decided to test female choice based on the length and color of the mane. She sent mane and fur samples to a Dutch toy manufacturer who agreed to produce four slightly larger-than-life stuffed toy lions with detachable manes. The manes were made in four styles: short- and long-haired blondes, and short- and long-haired brunettes.
"The goal was to see whether we could link the color or length to other qualities," says West.
West loaded the dummies onto a large trailer, drove to her study site, and planted two of the furry mannequins about 15 feet (4.6 meters) apart into the tall grasses. Then she blasted the sounds of hyenas at a killthe dinner bell of the African savannaand waited for lions to approach.
Nine out of ten times, the females sidled up to the dummies with the darker manes. A movie of one female lion in estrous revealed "explicit sexual behavior, walking sinuously past the models," according to the report.
Males, by contrast, were more hesitant to approach the scene and only advanced toward male mannequins with short blond manes.
Males are keen to avoid confrontation, so they steer clear of older, healthier, more aggressive male rivals. "Males want to win fights without actually fighting so they assess each other on the basis of the other lion's mane," said West.
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