Cats are incredibly smart animals. Maybe not quite as much as dogs, at least not in the same way but they are smart nonetheless. So, it’s especially funny to see that farmers and scientists from Botswana and Australia were able to deter big-cat predators such as lions and leopards from attacking cattle by just… painting eyes on the cows’ butts.
A simple yet effective experiment
The initiative wasn’t just the spontaneous idea of several farmers. It was a purposeful experiment conducted by researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia, the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and Botswana Predator Conservation. The research was conducted with the help of several Botswana farmers in the Okavango delta region of the country and the results were published in the Nature Communications Biology journal.
The premise of the study was built on the idea that most big cats – which are the main cattle predators in Botswana – are “ambush predators”. Whether lions, leopards, or cheetahs, every big cat is always looking for the element of surprise when it hunts. That’s because hunting is a very energy-inefficient way to acquire food and the big cats make sure they are as conservative about approaching a hunt as possible – exerting energy on an unsuccessful hunt is often detrimental for predators.
According to most wildlife statistics, cheetahs have a ~50% success rate when hunting, leopards – ~38%, and lions – ~25%. Cheetahs exert much more energy than the others, however, and lions usually hunt in packs. For all three big cats, however, attacking prey that sees you is often an unjustified risk.
Dr. Neil Jordan, a researcher in the joint UNSW Science and Taronga Western Plains Zoo study explained it in a statement like this: “Lions are ambush predators that rely on stalking, and therefore the element of surprise, so being seen by their prey can lead to them abandoning the hunt. We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses, potentially protecting lions and livelihoods at the same time.”
The study was conducted in a fascinatingly simple way – the researchers and farmers painted big, colorful eyes on the butts of some of their cows and left others unmarked. Some of the cows that received the “makeover” also got crosses on their behinds rather than eyespots. This allowed the researchers to see just how effective the eyespots are compared to other markings or the absence of markings.
And the results? In the four years of the study, not a single cow with eyespots on its butt was attacked, only four cows with crosses were attacked, and 15 unmarked cows became victims of the predators. These numbers are from 15 different herds of cattle. It should also be noted that these 19 attacks are lower than the expected average for 15 herds in a 4-years period which means that the painted cows likely “protected” the unpainted ones with their mere presence.
What’s curious is that the cross markings also seem to have been effective. That’s strange as they do not represent eyes so it’s likely that the predators avoided them simply because they looked “strange” and “different” from what they were used to.
As for the predators themselves, ~82% of predatory attacks in the area (not just for these 15 herds) were conducted by lions, 13% – by leopards, and ~5% – by wild dogs.
All this is both an innovative and a very common technique. Eye mimicry is used by many different species of butterflies and birds to deter predators. It isn’t naturally present in any mammal species which is strange given that it was just proven to be effective for mammals as well. The reason for this seeming “evolutionary oversight” may be because of how insects and birds use eye mimicry and how the researchers used it.
With birds and butterflies, the main goal of eye mimicry is to trick the predator into thinking the prey is much bigger than it actually is. Because the eyespots on the wings of these species are usually significantly bigger than their own eyes, they create the illusion of a giant face. This, in turn, confuses the predators into thinking they’re just seeing the large head of an animal and not a small prey.
With the recent experiment in Botswana, the “artificial eye mimicry” worked in a different way. The lions, leopards, and wild dogs weren’t confused about the size of the cattle – both cats and dogs are smart enough to discern the size of a cow accurately regardless of the markings on its coat. However, the eyespots most likely just made them feel “watched” which is a deterrent because these predators try not to attack when they feel the prey is watching them.
Still, the effectiveness of the cross marks confuses the researchers.
“While these results do support our initial hunch that creating the perception that the predator had been seen by the prey would lead it to abandon the hunt – the detection hypothesis – there were also some surprises,” Dr. Jordan said.
“Cattle marked with simple crosses were significantly more likely to survive than were un-marked cattle from the same herd. Although eye-marked cattle were more likely to survive than the other groups, this general ‘conspicuousness’ effect suggests that novel cross-marks were better than no marks at all, which was unexpected.”
How important is this research going to end up being?
A lot and not enough – depending on your point of view.
For Botswana, the cattle industry is crucial. The south African country has been making big strides in improving its agricultural industry and ~80% of that comes from livestock production. These efforts are vital for the country because for the past several decades it has been overly reliant on its diamond industry as it contributes for ~35% if the country’s GDP.
Botswana isn’t doing too bad, especially compared to other African countries – the small landlocked country has seen decades of a stable multi-party democracy, an almost uninterrupted economic growth, a relative lack of corruption, and a good human rights record. However, a lot of that is due to its diamond production.
Ever since the Kimberley Process Accords from 2003 which restricted the use of “blood diamonds” (diamonds from zones of military conflicts and areas with known human rights violations) in the diamond industry, the countries producing “clean” or “bloodless” diamonds such as Botswana have seen an economic growth. And that’s great in and of itself, however, no economy can be truly “safe” as long as it relies too much on a single revenue stream. That’s an age-old economics fact that countries like Venezuela (and its overreliance on oil) often learn the hard way.
So, Botswana is smartly looking to expand its other industries. The country is facing troubles when it comes to its agriculture and livestock production. The harsh desert climate and ancestral land conflicts with the native bushmen present two more problems in addition to the presence of wildlife predators such as lions, leopards, and wild dogs. For some perspective, according to a census from 2019, the African country’s cattle population has dropped from 2.5 million in 2011 to 1.7 million in 2015 due to droughts, reduction of grasslands, and predator attacks.
So, is painting eyes on the butts of cows going to save Botswana’s livestock industry? No. Is it going to help, however? Yes, it will. And it will do so at almost no economical cost as it’s a very easy and inexpensive solution. And, it’s something that many other countries around the world can implement too if they face problems with livestock predators.