Animal Selfies as Research

By Jennie Miller, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher


The lion is the so-called King of the Jungle; legend has it that a lion’s glare is fierce enough to send monkeys, wildebeest and even leopards scurrying for shelter. But as an American wildlife biologist with a rebellious streak, I’ve heard stories that make me question the lion’s undisputed dominance, especially over the carnivore next in line for the throne: the leopard.

If the lion really is King, one might expect leopards to avoid lions at all costs. Yet leopards seem at ease sharing the same landscape and even the same habitat with lions. In fact, leopards appear to coexist in the same space and time as lions, which makes me wonder if the legends have the ecological story wrong.

To find out, I’m collecting animal selfies. I’m using Panthera’s extensive network of camera traps to explore how the presence or absence of lions affects how leopards move around in their environment. Since 2013, Panthera’s Leopard Team in South Africa has been hard at work installing camera traps in 19 different sites where big cats are found, from mountainous rugged terrain to sprawling savannas.


Most of these sites have leopards, and their presence enables my colleagues to study how these extraordinarily adaptable big cats manage to survive across a range of habitats and human threats. But since lions don’t fare as well in the company of people, lions no longer inhabit some of the sites. This gradient of lion density across the landscape of eastern South Africa offers the rare opportunity to study how the leopard behaves in the presence and absence of its notorious King.


A camera trap image is – at best – an animal selfie. Animals of all sizes, shapes and textures trigger the motion-activated mounted camera as they walk past, documenting their presence. Besides producing adorable photos, camera traps can be used to track animal behavior, movement, and responses to other animals through examining an animal’s presence or absence – in science terms, ‘occupancy’ – at each camera in a network.


Using these photos, I plan to build occupancy models that examine the spatial relationship between lions and leopards. These models will help to generate a ‘species interaction factor’ that will explain how likely the two species are to bump into each other at different places and times. My hope is that these models will elucidate how leopards adapt their movements to coexist with lions, and maybe even reveal a new hierarchy among these big cats. More to come!