Purpose of the Lion's Mane

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The purpose of the male lion's mane has long perplexed biologists. Because female lions roam in groups of three or four, and allow only one male to reside with them, competition between males is fierce. Rival males often fight to the death-with their enormous teeth and claws-to gain coveted access to a pride. This led many biologists - including Charles Darwin - to assume that the function of the thick manes was to make it harder for attackers to reach the vulnerable throat area. But over the years this assumption has been questioned by field biologists who actually saw lions fight and noticed that the mane area was rarely targeted. Evolutionary biologist Peyton West and her colleagues from the University of Minnesota used life-size lion dummies to test if manes indeed offered protection. The researchers first lured some lions to the testing area by playing tapes of hyenas feeding at a kill, then presented them with the fake rivals. "Of course we worried that the lions wouldn't be fooled," West says. But many of the real lions attacked the fakes with a vengeance. Sometimes the fakes worked so well in fact, that even after the real lions knocked them over, they tended to stick around and maul them some more. The real lions didn't attack the models at the neck, but on the back and hindquarters, putting a serious snarl in the protective mane hypothesis. To see if the males were avoiding the neck because the mane was acting as a shield, the researchers repeated the tests with "maneless" fakes. But even with these exposed-neck models, the real lions went first for the backside. "We were pretty surprised to find so little evidence for protection," West says. "It's so intuitive that the mane would work that way." But it turns out those shaggy manes are used for attracting females. In previous research published in 2002, West had shown that males with longer and darker manes were older, better fed, and better fighters. And because females rely on males to protect their...
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