Lions and food that falls from the sky

I was sitting at a conference, listening to the presenters drone on, when I decided to peruse the table of contents of the latest issue of Animal Cognition journal.

One title in particular caught my eye: “Lions (Panthera leo) solve, learn, and remember a novel resource acquisition problem.”

In English: lions learned how to solve a puzzle to get food.

This title caught my eye because you don’t normally see lions as a focus of animal cognition research.

There was also this photograph:

Source: Animal Cognition journal

I couldn’t help it–I blew off the conference and headed to a nearby coffee shop to find out what this was all about. (Shhh, don’t tell!)

This was a really cool study. The researchers rigged up a “puzzle box”: a wooden box with a trapdoor at the bottom, that could be opened if you pull on a rope. In the box they put a food reward: a big hunk of raw meat (yum).

The researchers wanted to see whether lions could solve the puzzle by pulling on the rope. If lions couldn’t solve the puzzle, they wanted to see if they could learn by watching a lion who knew how to solve the puzzle. Finally, they wanted to see if lions could remember how to solve the puzzle after waiting a few weeks.

The researchers argued that there was good reason to believe that the lions would solve the puzzle relatively easily. Their reasoning was that lions are daily problem-solvers: every day they have to find food, and their food can be sparse and hide and move. Also, lions are problem-solvers when it comes to navigating social relationships with the other members of their pride.

The “participants” in the study were 12 fully-grown lions (10 females, 2 males) from a Lion Safari in Florida. They were released one at a time into an area with the puzzle. Each lion was given three chances (trials) of 10-minutes each to solve the puzzle. If they couldn’t solve the puzzle after the third try, they were paired with a lion who “showed” them how to solve it. Then the lion was tested again on their own.

Six lions solved the puzzle during their very first trial (yay!). One lion solved the puzzle in his second trial, and four lions solved the puzzle after being partnered with a “successful” lion. Only one lion couldn’t solve the puzzle at all.

Now here is something that’s really cool. There were 11 lions who solved the puzzle. Ten of them solved the puzzle using the “obvious” way: by grasping the end of the rope in their mouth and pulling until the trapdoor opened. But one lion rose up on his hind legs, grabbed the top of the rope with his front paws, and pulled until the food was released. He did this each time he was exposed to the puzzle.

Originality! Awesome!

Once the lions solved the puzzle, they were faster to solve the puzzle the next time they were released into the testing arena. Also, all lions who were successful in solving the puzzle remembered how to solve the puzzle when they were reintroduced to it weeks later.

So the researchers were right: lions are pretty darn good at solving a problem.

I am inspired. Isn’t the animal kingdom amazing?!

Guess I’d better get back to the conference. Sigh…



Borrego, N., & Dowling, B. (2016).Lions (Panthera leo) solve, learn, and remember a novel resource acquisition problem. Animal Cognition, 19, 1019-1025.


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