Lions vs Hyenas 2

Predator Challenge

This is a continuation of a previous post I did on a Smithsonian Channel documentary, Killer IQ: Lions vs. Hyenas (2015). It consisted of two parts, Predator Games and Predator Challenge. The results may surprise some, as watching the ways animals learn can be amazing. It was a true look at ethical experimenting and studying of animal behavior. All tests consisted of the same trainer (Kevin Richardson) for both animal sets, and two different experimenters, a lion specialist (Natalia Borrego, MS) and a hyena specialist (Dr. Christine Drea). If you decide to watch the documentary yourself, you may notice the trainer shows significant bias towards lions. Full disclosure, I have loved hyenas since I was a child. I appreciate lions, but my heart has always been with hyenas. This review is of Part 2, Predator Challenge.
(All pictures used in this review are screenshots I captured from the documentary.)

In this part of the documentary, lions and hyenas were tested using mirrors, puzzle boxes, and food, an unconditioned reinforcer (naturally reinforcing). I will break down each test the way the documentary did, which examined gender differences, social learning, and attempts to account for extraneous variables.

To attempt to make this easier to read and digest, backgrounds are color-coded as follows – blue = general info., yellow = lions, orange = hyenas. All images used are screenshots from the documentary.

Trainer of both lions and hyenas.
Lion experimenter.
Hyenas experiementer and researcher.

Test 1 – Mirrors and Reflection


It was noted that lions frequently encounter their own reflections when drinking water, but do not appear to pay attention to the reflections. The lions were led to a mirror which showed them their own reflection and the reflection of the other side of a wall. They were then shown their trainer holding food on the other side of the wall, via the mirror. In order to get to the trainer with the food, the lions had to walk around a wall, away from the mirror. The only way to see what was on the other side of the wall was by using the mirror. To account for lions’ sense of smell, of both their trainer and the food reward, an enclosure was set up that did not allow for smell. The results were as follows …


Two specific lionesses were observed during this test, then an unspecified number (the remainder of the pride) were stated to also be tested, to account for any inaccuracies.
Each lioness, upon encountering the mirrors, bumped into the mirror and attempted to walk behind it. They spent a lot of time looking at themselves in the mirror, non-aggressively. Eventually, they all observed their trainer in the mirror. After observing their trainer in the clear enclosure, all the lionesses tested were able to walk around the wall (away from the mirror and around a bend) and find the food and trainer.

Lioness with the reflection of her trainer holding food.

All lionesses passed the test.


Only one male was observed to be tested, as he was “the male” of the pride. Upon encountering the mirror, the male lion focused all his attention on attempting to physically and aggressively engage his reflection. This is a typical response to encountering an outsider male lion. The male lion never attended to his trainer, or attempted to leave to mirror, focusing on his reflection.

Lion aggressively in front of the mirror.

The male lion failed the mirror test.

Lions drinking with their reflections observable.
Hyena walking around the barrier wall after seeing reflections in the mirror.
Hyena opening the buckets during the Mirror Test.
Hyena opening the buckets during the Mirror Test.


Hyenas were tested differently during the Mirror Test. They were prompted towards the mirror then shown the reflection on the other side of the wall. Instead of a trainer holding meat, they were shown two buckets with meat being dropped into one of the two. In order to pass the test, each hyena needed to not only observe the reflection and walk around the wall, they had to choose the correct bucket. It began by testing the weakest member of the pact first, who figured out the Mirror Test instantly. It was so fast the trainer noted it was faster than the lions, and must have been an outlier. After he passed they began testing the other hyenas (number not stated), who all spotted the reflections and passed the tests instantly. In summarizing the test, the trainer stated he was surprised the hyenas were so smart, while the hyena researcher was not surprised at all.

All hyenas passed the test.

Test 2 – Puzzle Box 2

As both hyenas and lions live in groups and have established social hierarchies, it was theorized that social learning is an important skill. This puzzle box test was used to research if behaviors needed to access food can be directly taught from one animal to another.


Social Learning

Prior to reviewing the process of Test 2, it was discussed that lions use Social Learning to teach their young, specifically, they present live prey to the cubs and then teach it to attack/kill. In order to test Social Learning, a metal box was setup with food inside. The box opens in 1 of 2 ways, either by pulling a rope to slide open a Yellow Drawer, or pulling a rope to slide open a Red Door. The box was moved and re-positioned to demonstrate that the behavior was fully learned and not the result of repetition and location pattern.

Female to Female Learning

The first lioness (Jenny) was taught to open the metal box to access food placed inside via pulling open the Yellow Drawer. A second lioness (Libby) observed the first finding the food via this method. The second lioness was then presented the metal box by herself. The theory was, if lions learn via social learning, the second lioness should easily open the box by herself using the observed method (ignoring the other possible method), which she did multiple times.

Conclusion: Lionesses were able to learn via social learning, by watching each other.

Female to Male Learning

The box was moved and turned so that the Yellow Drawer was not in the exact same spot. This time the second lioness (Libby) was paired with the Pride’s male lion, to see how he learned from her. Libby went to the side the Yellow Drawer was previously on, but could not find it. She then pulled open the Red Door, unable to find the food. While she was examining the Red Door looking for the Yellow Drawer, the male lion slide open the Yellow Drawer on the other side and found the food independently, without being taught.

Conclusion: Lions did not require social learning to figure out the Puzzle Box. This was seen more as an example that lions work via cooperation, rather than learning.


Social Learning

Prior to reviewing the process of Test 2, it was discussed that lions use Social Learning to teach their young, specifically, they present live prey to the cubs and then teach it to attack/kill. In order to test Social Learning, a metal box was setup with food inside. The box opens in 1 of 2 ways, either by pulling a rope to slide open a Yellow Drawer, or pulling a rope to slide open a Red Door. The box was moved and re-positioned to demonstrate that the behavior was fully learned and not the result of repetition and location pattern.

Pulling Open a Latch

The first hyena (Teka) was taught how to open a metal puzzle box (different from the box used with the lions). A second hyena (Bongo) was paired with the first (Teka) to learn how to open the box. After 2 observations, Teka was removed from the area and Bongo was observed to see if he could open the box independently. Bongo was successful in opening the box independently.

Conclusion: Behavior was taught directly, and replicated by the learner.

Pulling Open a Drawer

The initial learner (from human to hyena) was Ajip. Once observed to reliably pull open the drawer, he was then prompted to open the drawer in front of the new learner. The new learner (Luke) was able to replicate the newly instructed behavior, despite struggling.

Conclusion: Again, behavior was directly taught and replicated.

Test 3 – Social Communication

The Smell Test
Scents of outsides animals were placed in the environments to see how the lions and hyenas both reacted and communicated.

Lions – Communication via urine
As lions use urine to mark their territories, urine soaked towels (of a rival male lion) were rubbed on trees and various areas of the environment. Urine scents communicate gender and mating availability. No true test was done, just wiping the towels on trees and seeing what happened, which was smelling the towel and curiosity.

Hyenas – Communication via pasting
Hyenas use scents to give them information of numerous areas of their lives – are lions around? are friendly hyenas around? New smells on a hyena can raise their social rank and make them more “interesting” to other hyenas. Although lion urine can communicate information to hyenas, hyenas typically use pasting (rubbing anal gland secretions) on tall grass in the environment communicates who they are, when they were there, and other unknown information.

In this test, pasting samples were placed in the hyenas’ environment. Samples included a subordinate and dominant member of a clan, to test if dominance information could be passed, as dominant pasting samples “should” be preferred.

During the first test, a male hyena (Teka) from a second clan was introduced into the environment after pasting samples were placed. The dominant pasting sample used was that of a high ranking female hyena (Gina), and the subordinate sample was that of a young female hyena (Woody). Woody was chosen over Gina, which was thought to be due to the Teka seeing that as the sample of a possible mate. Preference was determined by Teka spending 2-minutes 40-seconds interacting with the pasting sample of Woody, and 33-seconds with the pasting sample of Gina. Tika rolled around in Woody’s sample, and ignored Gina’s sample (pictured below).

Gina is her clan’s dominant leader, approximately 15-years-old, and has had several litters over her life. She is also less likely to mate with Tika, while a younger male from another clan. Woody, despite being subordinate, is 5-years-old, has had no pups, and is in her mating prime. She would be more likely to mate with Tika.

Test 4 – Hunting

Lions and Hyenas hunt both individually and in group. This was an examination of how hunting behaviors change when with and without a group hunting party.

(This image is a screenshot of a clip used in the documentary, but it is not of the lions in the tests. It was a general lion hunting party clip used for illustration.)

Solo Hunting – 1 female
The lioness approached the cutout prey (gazelle) and attacked successfully. It was noted she took down the smallest prey available. It was then theorized that she may attack a larger animal if not hunting alone.

Paired Hunting – 2 female
The lionesses attacked the same size prey (gazelle), this time stopping when they noticed it was a cutout and not a real animal.

Paired Hunting – 1 female, 1 male
The pair (Bobcat & Gabby) attacked a larger animal (buffalo), with the lioness approaching first, and the male jumping in after approach.

Group Hunting – 2 female, 1 male
The lions immediately stalked the largest animal available (buffalo), but the cutout fell down. Then instantly turned their attentions to the next nearest animal (gazelle), which was not the next largest available just the nearest, taking it down successfully. It was stated by the trainer they probably preferred gazelle meat as gazelle tastes delicious.

Hyenas recognized the 2D cutouts were not real animals, and refused to attack them after approaching. The trainer stated they were too smart to be fooled by fake animals.

Overall Results

Test 1 – Mirrors and Reflection
Female lions passed the mirror test after being given several visual prompts.
Male lions failed the mirror test.
All hyenas passed the mirror test, almost instantly.

Test 2 – Puzzle Box 2

Lions can learn from watching each other, but they do not imitate each other. They focus on cooperation, rather than repeating behaviors of others.
Hyenas directly demonstrated behaviors to each other, which were then replicated by the learner.

Test 3 – Social Communication (Smell Test)
The male lion smelled the urine scented areas. No further testing was done, just a direct observation of reactions.
There was no indication if “dominance” information was passed. The assumed information communicated via pasting samples was that of sex, approximate age, and mating possibility.

Test 4 – Hunting
Lions recognized 2D cutout images as the animals they represented. They hunted larger prey when females hunted with males, but as a pair and in a group.
Hyenas recognized the 2D cutouts were not real animals, and refused to attack them after approaching.

Both lions and hyenas are intelligent, and react to their environment in ways that best support their established social norms for survival.
Hyenas use more direct social communication and have more “high intellect” reactions, in regards to recognizing situations beyond what the assumed animal react would be.
Lions rely more on social roles in regards to how interactions differ when a male is involved. Specifically, female lions change their behaviors in the presence of a male lion, and appeared to have better social communication and environmental recognition without a male present.

Overall Impressions

As pointed out in the review of the first half of this documentary, testing was not the same for lions and hyenas, despite the same “behaviors” being tested. Researchers attempted to account for gender roles and physical attributes; however, while testing the same attributes, the tests were conducted differently, making results less objective. Also, all tests were implemented with stated expectations, making it more difficult to remain objective. Despite this, tests had solid results, which appeared to demonstrate easy replication for further research. If further research were to occur, I would personally like to see more objective implementation by trainers and researchers, specifically in regards to lions. I did feel the hyena researcher appeared to be less biased during tests, but all perceived biases are at the mercy of editing.


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