About Me

My photo
Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

British Lions

I am prompted to this by a curious story about a reported lion in rural Essex. The sighting, which doesn't appear to be a deliberate hoax, was taken seriously enough to prompt a police operation, only called off in the last few hours.

[I am not referring in my title to the rugby 'team' of the same name. What could one say about an aggregation of players from four countries; England, Scotland and Wales - which only regard themselves as separate countries when it suits - plus an unequivocally sovereign nation in the Irish Republic? (Yes I do know about the odd situation of the Irish Football Union, but this is about natural history and we already have confusion enough.) It would be like Australia and New Zealand putting up a joint team called the Australasian Leopards, though actually there would be two problems with that. One is that it's currently doubtful if an Australian could get a guernsey, but the other is material to this posting.]

There were never leopards in Australia or New Zealand, but there certainly were lions native to Britain not so long ago. Cave Lions - bigger than modern African Lions, shaggy against the cold - roamed across northern Europe until the most recent glaciation, disappearing perhaps only 10,000 years ago. During this glaciation, and previous ones, Britain and Ireland were connected to continental Europe by lower sea levels. Evidence from mainland European cave paintings suggests that these lions lived in prides but may not have sported manes. Current thinking is that Cave Lions were the same species as living lions, Panthera leo, though they have also been called Panthera spelaea, giving them full species ranking. They also crossed the Bering Strait into North America, where a large long-legged lion developed.
While one might assume that a lioness in Queen Elizabeth
National Park was English, this one is in fact Ugandan.

Cave Lions would certainly have cohabited with early Brits; humans (ie of genus Homo, not necessarily Homo sapiens) have been in Britain for perhaps 800,000 years, though it seems that they came and went at least eight times as sea levels and temperatures rose and fell. The current continuous occupation phase started only 12,000 years ago, so it is quite likely that Stone Age British encampments shared something with a modern African game park - the thrilling vibrating nocturnal rumble of a male lion stating his claims. (They would not have shared the presence of a nice reassuring boundary fence though, which changes everything.)

In the end though, the people stayed and, for reasons unclear, the lions disappeared. Or did they? Is the Essex lion a swirl of the imagination, a most unusually large domestic cat (as claimed by some and emphatically rejected by the witnesses), or a Cave Lion that stepped through a wrinkle in time? For now it seems to be lion low. After all, as the Eagles explained, there ain't no way to hide those lion eyes.
As a final digression - and you need to get used to digressions here -
these blokes were just a couple of hundred metres away from the lion, and yes,
that is a supposedly feared Cape Buffalo just behind them! There were also
Nile Crocodiles and Hippos a few hundred metres in the other direction.
Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda 2010


Flabmeister said...

As a person who grew up on the Blackwater estuary, and attended Maldon Grammar School, I am unsure that you are paying enough attention to the fact that this comes from Essex! Anything is possible there!

The presence of a pet Maine Coon cat - weighing in at 14kgs - within a few 10s of metres of the sighting - seems to fit Occams Razor rather well.

An alternative is the influence of Bradwell Nuclear Power Station, about 16km from Clacton, on the average moggy!

aaardvaark said...

"Lion low"!!!

Your two relevant dates might be more than coincidence - people set up permanently around 12,000 years ago; lions disappear around 10,000 years ago...? If I were betting I'd put my money on people wiping out the lions on a constrained little island, like aboriginal Australians arriving to wipe out interesting large slower animals here. Or is that a fiction?

Ian Fraser said...

You may be right Flabmeister, but I think the observers are a bit miffed at the proposal that they can't tell a 14kg moggy from a 100+ lion; mind you, I'm only the messenger here!

Welcome aboard Aardvaark, and thanks for visiting. It's always very relevant when human arrival coincides with a species' exit, but it's hard to prove the charge too. I don't know what the latest thinking is re Cave Lions/humans in Britain, but I know the connection has been proposed. As for Australia - I'm sure you know that that's a very contentious one indeed. People more knowledgeable than I firmly believe that people - especially by changing fire regimes - were responsible for the relatively recent extinction of a range of Australian megafauna. I'm sure there was an influence, but I'm not convinced that climate fluctuations can be deemed irrelevant; I'd have five bob each way and suggest a combination. I'd be very glad to hear from others.

aaardvaark said...

Ian from Julian - sorry I wasn't being furtive it's just that this blog insisted on signing me in as aaardvaark in order to post ... the same moniker I use on flickr where I assume people know my real self. About humans and extinction, I'd reckon that observation and (again) Occam's razor are on the side of humans as cause in many cases. In the other corner, how many things that are difficult to explain turn out to be combinations as you say. But I'll choose (nice to be able, since we can't prove it either way!) to go with the former given these extinctions are not difficult to explain if you give Ockham a run for his money. (I had to look up Ockham to work out why I was confused about the spelling and I still am. Wikepedia and most other sources call it "Occam's Razor" and then go on to attribute it to William of 'Ockham'). While I'm digressing, this blog uses incredibly tough robot detection - I really can't work out most of these puzzles either by sight or sound :(

Ian Fraser said...

Hmm, re the comment on posting Julian; it follows hard on an email I got from someone justifiably complaining that she couldn't comment as she didn't want to 'join'. I've put my settings to say that Anyone can comment, so I'm puzzled - can anyone explain this anomaly? Thanks!
And I'll have to ask you explain this one Julian - sorry.
>this blog uses incredibly tough robot detection

Julian (not signed in, via "Name/URL" said...

Ah maybe I've misled myself - it seems you can "Choose an identity" and set that to 'anonymous'. When I come to this page "Choose an identity" defaults to 'Google account' which, if you don't see that and don't change it, forces you to log in first. So as a test I've logged out of Google and will now post by setting my identity to 'anonymous'or 'Name/URL'

But I still have to prove myself not to be a robot, which I must say I find quite difficult sometimes as the words presented for me to decode are often indecipherable. Maybe as a blog owner you don't have to do it, but we have to pass a 'you're not a robot' test which I'd illustrate if I knew how to add an image into a comment. A scrambled set of letters are presented and a photo of a number, and we have to write down these correctly -- otherwise comment is not accepted.

Screen capture illustrates...