Studying mammals: meat eaters

1 The hunters

As you work through this unit you will come across boxes, like this one, which give you advice about the study skills that you will be developing as you progress through the unit. To avoid breaking up the flow of the text, they will usually appear at the start or end of the sections.

As well as the unit text, you will be using The Life of Mammals book (LoM) and related The Life of Mammals DVDs, as described in the introduction to this unit. Before you go any further, watch ‘Meat Eaters’ on the DVD and read LoM Chapter 5. Unless stated otherwise, all the page references you encounter in this unit will be to LoM.

The TV programme ‘Meat Eaters’ contains some of the most spectacular and memorable film sequences of the Life of Mammals series, notably those showing the chasing and capture of large herbivores (zebra and wildebeest, for example) by powerful and effective hunters, such as lions and hyenas. But the term ‘meat eaters’ also encompasses more modestly sized hunters – the stoat, for example, whose hunting habits are vividly illustrated in the early sections of both LoM Chapter 5 and the TV programme. Many meat eaters have less spectacular but no less intriguing feeding habits, feeding on smaller and more variable prey. In the UK, the badger is so partial to earthworms to warrant the label ‘worm specialist’ and yet its Italian relatives are more dependent on insects and olives.

Chapter 5 of LoM described a wide variety of meat-eating habits. Predators kill living prey and eat the fresh carcass. Scavengers eat animals that have died from other causes and/or the remains of predator kills. Many meat eaters, including lions, wolves and hyenas, are both predators and scavengers, but others, notably cheetahs, are exclusively predators – they cannot deal with even slightly rotten meat. In this unit, we will examine the biology of the impressive meat eaters (e.g. wolves, lions and cheetahs), focusing in part on the biological ‘equipment’ – slashing and gripping teeth, for example – and on the less obvious behavioural characteristics that have contributed to the undoubted success of these fearsome hunters. As you'll appreciate from LoM and the programme, many hunters live and hunt in groups, which raises intriguing questions about the advantages of group living and the types of social behaviour between individuals that help maintain group coherence.