Tails From The Zoo

Mural of the Cave Lions April 15, 2010

Filed under: Biodiversity,CAZA,New Animals/Births,Wild Cats — Scott Gray @ 9:23 am
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By Dr. Robert E. Wrigley, Curator, Assiniboine Park Zoo

While the Assiniboine Park Zoo has displayed a number of lions over its 106-year history, a decision was made in 1981 to eliminate this species from the collection due to inadequate winter quarters for a large animal that could not handle the cold periods of a Winnipeg winter. And yet the public continued to ask about this popular and majestic species, one so traditional at other zoos. In response, the Zoo brought in a pair of lions in 2005 on loan from Import/Export Inc., one of CAZA’s commercial members. The opportunity to observe a lion family (two cubs were born soon after arrival) attracted remarkable public and media attention, and attendance rose by an extra 34,000 – an increase that year of 9 percent.
With the assistance of the Zoological Society of Manitoba, a plan was developed in 2008 to renovate the old Giant Panda building to host a permanent display of the “King of Beasts,” and also to construct a new space for a variety of uses and programs (displays, classes, meetings, and dining and sleep-overs with the Lions). The entire project is set to open in the spring of 2010.

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The interpretive displays focus on:

  • the modern lion’s ancestors and races, morphology (including a lion skeleton), distribution, natural history, and conservation issues,
  • the history of big cats (with fossil-skull replicas and figure drawings) and other cat-like carnivores (e.g., marsupial lions) that filled this top-predator niche around the world over the last 30 million years,
  • a 13 by 0.7-metre LED light box with 53 representative images of paintings and sculptures of lions, interpreted by artists from many cultures, from 35,000 years ago to the present day.
  • portraits of the 38 species of living cats, most of which are now at risk, and
  • a 27 by 4.6-metre mural which serves as the background for the spacious indoor quarters of the lions, and which is accessible for public viewing from the interpretive room. This current article describes this latter component of the project.

The objective here was to display the lion in its natural habitat, but one completely different from the typical African savanna scene to which people are so accustomed. The mural depicts a scene 12,000 years ago in France or Spain, just after the last Ice Age, but prior to the introduction of agriculture to Stone Age (Upper Paleolithic) people living in the valley. A pair of European cave lions is seen stalking a herd of red deer — a species also important in the diet of a hunter/gatherer family camped nearby. This race of lion weighed around 250 kg (recent lion averages 190 kg), likely had a thick fur coat to withstand cold winter temperatures, and is believed to have sought refuge inside caves during extreme weather and to feed in seclusion.
The left wall of the exhibit is devoted to a cut-away view of a limestone cave, which has protected a wonderful treasury of prehistoric art. Over the last 1.7 million years, possibly four successive, overlapping species of humans (Homo erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and our species H. sapiens) occupied the region now known as Europe. Although pre-historic populations are thought to have been remarkably small (in the mere thousands), individuals of all these species likely visited and lived in numerous caves over countless generations, and from 35,000-12,000 years ago (late Paleolithic period), members of our species painted and engraved wonderful images on the walls and ceilings of the animals they hunted for food and used in ceremonies. These elegant paintings were done in charcoal and manganese dioxide (both black pigments) and iron oxide (red), mixed with a liquid binder. The paintings often incorporated colors and contours of the cave wall to create a 3-dimentional effect, and used bold contrast between light and dark (using mixed pigments and existing cave stains) to produce great drama – an art technique known as “chiaroscuro.” On occasion, certain animals were carved into or molded onto the walls and ceilings.

Anthropologists believe these cave bestiaries had a magical purpose, with shamans overseeing sacred rituals and visions. The presence of arrows and spears stuck into bleeding and disemboweled big-game animals, red dots on the animals’ necks and flanks, and imprints of the human hand all strongly suggest that these people believed their hunting success would be enhanced by these icons. The fact that so many paintings survived to this day in numerous caves around Europe is evidence that generations of people held them in high regard.
When the first caves were discovered in the early 1900s, these paintings were thought by some art historians to be modern fakes; how could primitive people create such beautiful works of art? However, it was soon realized they were authentic, and represented some of the most-remarkable examples of impressionistic art ever produced. Several caves (e.g., Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain) have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Chauvet Cave in France, dated at 35,000 years ago and only discovered in 1994, represents a veritable zoo display of native animals so beautifully executed that it has been described as the “birthplace of art.”

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I asked Winnipeg mural artists Mandy van Leeuwen and Michel St. Hilaire to work with me to capture within the mural 15 species typically represented in these remarkable caves. Images of cave lions appear in a number of sites, such as the “Chamber of Felines” at Lascaux, which depicts several speared lions, one bleeding from the mouth. A search on the topic of cave paintings on Google (e.g., Wikipedia article on “Cultural Depictions of Lions”) will reveal an astonishing variety of fantastic Paleolithic animal art. With the huge mural in full view, visitors will be asked if they can identify the following animals:

  • Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaeus), Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus), Woolly Mammoth (Mammothus primigenius),
  • Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), Modern Horse (Equus caballus), Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)
  • Aurochs (Bos primigenius), Alpine Ibex (Capra ibex), Giant Deer (Megaloceros giganteus), Red Deer (Cervus elaphus)
  • Caribou (Rangifer tarandus), Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus), Owl and butterfly (species unknown)

Sadly, most of these species were driven into extinction by 10,000 years ago due to rapid climate/ecosystem changes and hunting by people, but a few have survived to this day, and are found both in the wild and in zoos.

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Although the Lion had evolved in Africa (as evidenced by Tanzanian fossils) by 3.5 million years ago, it diversified into various races as it spread over temporary land bridges into Eurasia, North America and northwestern South America. In fact, this species had the largest-known distribution of any large mammal and was common throughout the western and southern halves of our continent until only 10,000 years ago. The American Lion (Pantera leo atrox) was the largest cat that ever walked the earth – at least a third larger (up to 380 kg; 838 lbs) than the African and Asiatic races of recent times. As I write this, I am looking at a beautiful skull replica of this massive species, and it is measures 46 x 27 cm. Few zoo visitors are familiar with this fascinating story.
Going back farther in time, the lion and other big cats have played significant roles in the lives of our species and in about 20 other extinct members of the human family. For six million years, big cats have been both fearsome predators of humans, and major competitors for available game. People have demonstrated a love-hate relationship with the majestic lion, ranging from treating it as a pet to destroying every individual possible and neglecting its conservation. Originally numbering in the millions over its vast world-wide range, this species continues in a precipitous decline, directly related to human over-population (persecution, habitat competition, and disease). Fewer than 18,000 survive in Africa and 300 in India, and some biologists fear the species will be exterminated from the wild well before the end of the century — all the more reason for zoos to press onward with public education and with spearheading conservation measures.
A zoo/aquarium setting is a wonderful space to explore traditional and new interpretive techniques, adapted from museums, art galleries, and nature and science centers. Combining live animals in naturalistic backgrounds, themed trails, fossil and human artifacts (real or images), inter-active games, videos, computer stations, and other concepts add so much more to a facility visit. They intrigue various age groups and help attract repeat visitation because there is always something new to see and do. As a former curator and director of a major provincial museum and a national nature center, I have seen how successful an exhibit can be when augmented by exciting supportive materials and techniques.
Zoos and aquariums also have an enviable interpretive advantage in that they can show living, active species (not just images and objects) – the next best thing to being in the wildest places on earth. Visitors to the new exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo will not only marvel at a lion family, but will learn so much more about these amazing cats. After all, lions were formerly and still are found outside Africa, and in recent prehistoric times (until 11,500 to 10,000 years ago) they were part of Canada’s native fauna, competing for big-game prey with the Sabretooth cat (Smilodon fatalis), the American cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) and its close relative the puma (Puma concolor), and with the growing population of recent human immigrants from Asia.

This article appears in the April Newsletter of the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

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