Apex land predators

The debate on whether we humans are the top land predator continues

During my stay in Africa, seeing lions, hyenas, crocodiles and leopards brought on a wave of fear and respect for predators and their prey.

Spotted hyenas survey the savannah for their next meal. KAY E. HOLEKAMP

Zoologically speaking, predation is the killing and consumption of another organism, save parasites and bacteria. Apex predators reside at the top of their food chain and normally have no predators of their own.

Lions vs hyenas

There is a battle that has been raging for millennia between two of Africa's largest and most impressive hunters: lions and hyenas (Family Hyaenidae - three species). We all know how powerful and lethal lions can be. Boasting canine teeth 8cm in length, having a mass of over 200kg and sporting razor-sharp claws, lions are the ultimate killer on the savannahs. Or are they?

Surely the mangy-looking, scavenging, laughing hyenas are no match for such a formidable opponent? Lions are successful in the hunt about one or two times in five hunts; whereas, on average, a group of hunting hyenas are actually more successful.

It is frequently thought that hyenas scavenge the carcasses of prey killed by lions, but often it is the other way round.

Male lions kill hyenas for what seems like sport, but lionesses are much smaller than the males. Although they can kill hyenas, there is rarely a lone hyena, and it is strength in numbers that makes hyenas so formidable.

Hyenas can, and do, kill lionesses, and they are superb hunters in their own right. Although the clan is their strength, individually they do have an impressive array of weapons. Also, hyenas have the strongest bite of any mammal, far stronger than that of a lion.

Nothing is strong enough to stop their jaws. Bones, horns and hooves are all crushed by their carnassial molars, while the slicing back teeth attached to incredibly strong jaw muscles complete the task. They eat so much bone that their faeces are white, due to the high calcium content.

In the hunt, they have incredible stamina, despite their ungainly gait. Their running style allows them to run down prey to exhaustion and the hyenas drag them down and kill them. Their stamina contributes to their amazing success as hunters.

They outnumber lions considerably, so if you ever have the chance to visit Africa and you see hyenas, appreciate them for being what they are: incredibly successful, powerful master hunters.

Largest land carnivore

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus)is a superbly adapted, enormous carnivore. Despite its barrel-like body and squat legs, an adaptation for conserving heat in its unforgiving surroundings, it still stands 3m tall and has a mass of up to 700kg. It is a monster in the animal world.

It is so powerful that it can hunt seals, walruses and even small whales like the beluga whale, which can be easily twice the bear's mass. It does this by sitting and waiting at air holes in the ice until potential prey comes to the surface to breathe.

It then drags the animal out of the water with its hugely powerful front paws and kills the prey, generally with a crushing bite to the skull.

Some bears have also taken a fancy to human flesh, placing them among the rare animals on the planet that actively hunt humans.

Other amazing features of the polar bear include its heat-absorbing black skin, its hollow fur that acts as an insulating layer against the frigid temperatures, and its thick blubber that also wards off the cold. In effect, the polar bear radiates virtually no heat, making it the perfect predator of the icy worlds.

A lesser-known hunter

This animal may only be familiar to you because its name was mentioned (although pronounced incorrectly) in the famous Madagascar animated movies. It is the fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox). It is cat-like in appearance, but its closest living relative is the mongoose, meaning the fossa is part of a clade, an independent branch on a biological family tree. It is therefore in its own family.

The fossa lives exclusively on the island of Madagascar, and its main prey is lemurs. In order to catch a lemur, it has to be incredibly quick and agile among the trees. It is a superbly adapted hunter, yet rare and largely unknown to many branches of science.

A cat or a dog?

As many people are familiar with land predators like lions and tigers, I will continue with the lesser-known, yet equally impressive, hunters. The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is the most endangered canid and is Africa's rarest carnivore. It also has unique hunting techniques.

Although it lives in family packs like many other dogs, its hunting techniques are extremely cat-like. It lives primarily on large rodents that reside in burrows and feed on local vegetation. The Ethiopian wolf hunts alone.

It cannot run its prey to exhaustion like the grey wolf, so it stalks. Crouching down, sneaking silently up to a feeding rodent, it is displaying the exact behaviour of a preying cat. It then does a characteristically cat move of a short burst and pounce, killing its prey with a bite to the neck - a successful technique employed by cats and copied by dogs.

Personal favourite

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus, or "painted wolf") is a favourite land hunter. It was persecuted for centuries by white colonial hunters because it was seen as an evil animal. The reason for this opinion is its hunting technique, whereby a pack of dogs run for 3 or 4km after their prey, such as a wildebeest.

The prey eventually tires, but the dogs simply keep going. When their prey finally slows through exhaustion, the dogs surround the animal, with one biting its nose, another the tail, and others the legs and flanks, until it collapses. The pack then eats it while it is still alive.

It may be gruesome, but one animal's downfall is another's gain. This is the circle of life. Although the superbly adapted cheetah is successful three out of five times in a hunt, these relentless predators have a success rate of four in five hunts, an unparalleled success rate on the African savannahs.

When you delve a little deeper, you realise that the life of the pack is very intricate and family-oriented. There are few animals that support an injured member of a group, but these dogs are rare for the fact that they bring back food from the hunt for all members of the pack to share, including the injured, the babysitters and the pups, ensuring the survival of the pack as a whole. Despite their initial apparent brutality, they are a dedicated family unit.

Asia has its own equally rare and endangered version called the dhole (Cuon alpinus), which I have been fortunate enough to see in Khao Yai National Park. Dholes have very similar hunting techniques and the same strong family bonds. Those are some of the reasons why the Asian and African wild dogs are such favourites.

Dave Canavan has an MSc in Behavioural Ecology and is the Head of Secondary at Garden International School. Dave is fascinated by science and loves animals, especially the dangerous kind! Contact Dave at davidc@gardenbangkok.com .

About the author

Writer: David Canavan
Position: Writer