The impressive and intimidating roar of a male lion is truly an African sound that will resonate for a long time to the person hearing it. I think most will agree that the roar of a lion is part of what makes it the king of the beasts.
Only four cats can roar: lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar. They all are part of the exclusive Big Cat Club.
But how do they do it and why?
With our advanced phonetics, humans have more than a hundred thousand English words available to use and most adults will use around twenty thousand of these words on average. That leaves us with a big variety of ways to express emotions and convey messages to another human being.
Big cats do not have this luxurious repertoire and therefore have to rely on other effective ways and means to get their message across to other lions. Without this communication they would not be able to survive and therefore have evolved different physiological adaptations to communicate with each other.
One of these important adaptations is the morphology of the vocal cords and voice box. It comes in the form of the Epihyoideum. This is an elastic ligament lying between the lateral pharyngeal muscles and the Musculus (M.) thyroglossus . In addition to this their vocal folds have a flat, square shape and can withstand strong stretching and shearing. This is also referred to as viscoelastic properties. There is also a lot of fat located deep within the vocal fold ligament, and this helps give the folds their flattened, square shape. This shape makes it easier for the tissue to respond to the passing airflow, allowing louder roars at less lung pressure. A lion’s roar can reach 114 decibels and travel up to 8 kilometres (5miles) far. Small cats and the cheetah have a bony structure compared to the elastic one of big cats and therefore can not roar.
Male lions start to roar at around 1-1,5 years and females a little later. Roaring facilitates social cohesion, warns non-pride members to keep away in a strong and clear territorial message. Females can distinguish the roar of the pride -male from outsiders, thus being able to avoid nomadic males that may harm cubs. Recent studies also suggest that lions know from roars how many individuals they are listening to. This ability to “count” is believed to assess the risk or chances of a takeover. One individual male listening to 2 or 3 others will know that he is outnumbered and will not approach them.
In addition to roaring big cats also have other adaptations to aid in their communication. Big cats have sebaceous glands around their chin, lips, cheeks, whiskers, above tail and between their toes. They deposit these secretions onto each other, trees, shrubs and other objects to convey a message of identity, social and breeding status. The spraying of urine against vegetation and other objects are also a very important part of the intra-specific communication between the big cats.
Our learners at Bushwise field guides have the privilege to hear the roaring of lions on a frequent basis and are always in awe of these declarations of reign from the king of the beasts.
Blog by Gerhard van Niekerk