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In conjunction with the re-release of The Lion King (1994) on DVD in October, Disney also released a 3-D version of the film in theaters in late September. Given the huge success of the film in its initial release, and the continued popularity of the Broadway musical adaptation, the fact that the 3-D Lion King won the box office during both weekends of its theatrical run should come as no surprise. As a new generation of students are exposed to the film, science teachers can use it to start conversations on a variety of topics in biology and ecology.
For those few of you unfamiliar with the story, The Lion King depicts the life of Simba, the young prince of the Pride Lands: son of Mufasa (voiced by James Earl Jones) and Sarabi. Simba’s uncle, Scar (voiced by Jeremy Irons), plots to kill both king and prince in a wildebeest stampede, but only Mufasa dies. Believing he is responsible for his father’s death, Simba leaves the Pride Lands and is taken in by a warthog named Pumbaa and Timon, a meerkat. Simba grows into a young adult in the jungle with these two companions, while Scar rules the Pride Lands with help from his hyena minions. (The hyenas are voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings.) Simba, now voiced by Matthew Broderick, returns to the Pride Lands to save his kingdom from his uncle’s mismanagement. While predator-prey relationships are not always realistically represented in the film, a central message of responsible stewardship of natural resources is similar to ideas presented in Wall-E (2008).
The first NSTA national conference I ever attended in 1994 included a panel discussion, From Bones to Stones to Balloons and “Toons”: Integrating the Physical Sciences, Biological Sciences, and the Arts. The panel featured Dr. Stuart Sumida, who had consulted on The Lion King to help the animators correctly depict animal physiology. I don’t think I had ever considered a link between scientists and filmmaking before that session, so this column on The Lion King is another example of the “circle of life.”
Animators corrected Rafiki's gait after getting input from an expert in animal physiology.
Sumida noted that early versions of Rafiki incorrectly depicted the baboon knuckle-walking like a gorilla. Baboons place their “hands” on the ground palm downward, rather than putting their knuckles down first. When he called this to the animators’ attention, they revised their work to be more realistic. Sumida has consulted on many other animated films since, including Madagascar (2005), Tarzan (1999), and Ratatouille (2007). Among the issues he discussed in his 1994 talk was the differing physiology of meat-eating and grass-eating mammals.
Ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, and water buffalo get nutrients by digesting cellulose. They are only able to do so by using large four-chambered stomachs and re-chewing their food; the process is also aided by microbes living in the gut. The multiple stomachs and long intestines take up a lot of volume, so ruminants have round, wide bodies. It also takes a large volume of plant material to provide the calories a big herbivore needs to survive.
Since carnivores are out there looking for a meal, ruminants need to be able to see a wide field of view and hear well. Grass doesn’t run away, so depth perception isn’t particularly important for ruminants to find food. The combination of these factors means eyes positioned on the sides of the head are a very good adaptation for ruminant animals’ survival. A cow can see both left and right without turning its head, but the cow’s two eyes observe almost no overlap of the scene.
If the food you are trying to eat can run away, depth perception is very important to your success at getting a meal. To visually perceive distance or depth, the brain needs two slightly different images of the same object, one from each eye. Carnivores’ eyes are generally on the front of the head, which gives them the ability to judge distances. Lions and hyenas are both good examples of this adaptation. Carnivores also must move fast enough to catch their prey, and consume relatively calorie- and nutrient-rich food. Digesting meat is easier than digesting cellulose, so carnivores tend to have shorter digestive systems than herbivores. This means a carnivore’s body is usually leaner than an herbivore’s. The realities of obtaining and digesting food have physiological consequences that are important when an artist draws animals for a film like The Lion King.
Though the artists and writers of The Lion King heeded Sumida’s concerns about animal physiology, they were a bit less careful about some other biological issues. The opening scene of Simba’s presentation to the Pride Lands includes a beautiful transition from a close-up of leafcutter ants walking along a twig to a herd of zebra prancing across the savanna. The problem? Leafcutter ants are native to the Americas and do not live in Africa. Even though they don’t belong in the movie, they do provide an excellent example of mutualism, as the ants gather leaves not to eat, but to provide food for the fungus they cultivate in their colony. The fungus is fed to ant larva, so the relationship benefits both organisms.
It is also important to note that scientists who study hyenas are quite critical of The Lion King because of its negative portrayal of hyenas. Hyenas are in a philogenetic family of their own (Hyaenidae), though they are related to cats and look quite similar to dogs. Some of their behaviors are similar to feline behavior (washing and scent marking), while others are more canine (spotted hyenas live in social groups, much like wild dogs.) The reputation of hyenas as lazy scavengers is also incorrect; though striped hyenas are scavengers, the spotted hyenas shown in The Lion King are pack hunters that kill most of their food. Another member of the Hyaenidae family, the aardwolf, is an insectivore that primarily eats termites.
Now that the latest edition of The Lion King is available on DVD, science teachers can use the film to spark discussions of animal physiology, animal behavior, and interspecies cooperation.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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