Disney’s The Lion King is one of the most successful animated films of all time, grossing more than $960 million in 1994 and picking up two Golden Globes. The movie tells us big cats’ power over a territory is handed down through ancestral bloodline – similar to a monarchy. In reality, the transfer of power in lion society is dark and gruesome and would have resulted in Scar sitting atop Pride Rock as rightful ruler.
Here’s a quick recap of The Lion King’s plot. Simba, is born to Mufasa, alpha male of the Pride Rock territory. Simba will one day rule over ‘everything the light touches’ but his evil uncle, Scar, plans to take over Pride Rock and rule it himself. In one of the most traumatic scenes in Disney animation history, Scar kills Mufasa by sending him tumbling into a wildebeest stampede and exiles Simba from the pride.
The young lion grows up in a faraway jungle with two friends, a warthog called Pumba and Timon, a meerkat. When Simba reaches adulthood his childhood friend Nala discovers the group and convinces Simba to return to Pride Rock. She reveals Scar has allowed the kingdom to fall into ruin. In the finale’s stand-off, Simba defeats Scar and takes his place as rightful ruler of Pride Rock… roll credits.
Our first step in the science behind the story is identifying which sub-species the Pride Rock lions belong to. It turns out the movie’s producer, director and design team visited the Hells Gate National Park in Kenya, which means the characters we see onscreen are most likely based on East African lions (Panthera leo melanochaita), specifically Masai lions.
Female Masai lions, as with the majority of animal species, are attracted to males by their physical strength and which mate can give their offspring the best chance of survival. For the animated lionesses at Pride Rock, one of the most important physical traits when choosing a mate is hair.
In this sub-species, extra tufts of hair on the knee joints are a feature of genetically superior lions and, when looking at each of the characters side-by-side, we see Scar and Simba both feature these extra tufts but Mufasa doesn’t.
Another genetic distinction between superior and inferior lions is hair colour. According to research by the University of Minnesota, darker-maned lions such as Scar are significantly more attractive to females because dark hair is a sign of higher testosterone levels. A male with higher testosterone is usually more aggressive and better at defending mates and cubs. They also have much longer reproductive life spans and offer higher offspring survival.
‘The real reason lions have manes is to signal their health and parenting ability to other lions’Peyton West, University of Minnesota
This means out of the three main characters in The Lion King, the genetically superior character, and therefore the prized big cat, is Scar.
Another technical issue in The Lion King concerns Simba and his banishment. In reality, he would have been exiled from Pride Rock regardless of the death of Mufasa because, when a male lion approaches adulthood, they are (almost always) kicked out of the group to prevent inbreeding.
As an alpha male produces the majority of cubs in the pride, if the young male stays within or returns to the group there’s a considerable risk they will start to ‘feel the love tonight’ with a female they are related to. Unfortunately, this also means Simba and Nala are probably related and, by the end of the film, engaged in an incestuous relationship.
Luke Hunter, president of big cat conservation group Panthera, says: “After being kicked out, young males roam the countryside solo or in small bands [called coalitions], often with brothers or cousins, negotiating the no-cat’s-land between territories of other lions.” If these coalitions of exiled males encounter another pride they want to take over, the alpha males of each group will fight to the death.
Now let’s think about what must have happened in the years before the movie’s opening scene, which would have led to Mufasa being in charge of the territory. As family members in the same coalition, young Mufasa and Scar would have come across Pride Rock and killed the ruling alpha male. It is most likely Mufasa then defeated Scar to become undisputed ruler of the kingdom, which would also explain where Scar got his namesake facial disfigurement.
Unfortunately, Mufasa killing his way to rule Pride Rock opens up a whole new can of worms.
Hunter says: “When male lions take over a new territory, they almost always kill the pride’s cubs since they aren’t biologically related and don’t want to spend energy ensuring other lions’ genes are passed on.” Beverly Joubert, of National Geographic, adds: “Female lions won’t be receptive to mating while they are nursing so killing cubs enables the new male alpha to procreate.”
Therefore, before the opening scene Mufasa would have killed between two and four of the previous alpha male’s cubs (based on average litter sizes of East African lions).
The very nature of power transfer in lion society means when Scar defeats Mufasa, albeit with the help of a few thousand wildebeest, he does indeed become rightful ruler of Pride Rock. In a rather grizzly turn, Scar wouldn’t then exile Simba but kill him to prevent inbreeding between Simba and Nala or future step-sisters born from Scar and his own mother.
All things considered regarding the natural behaviour of lions and the nature of power in lion society, Scar is The Lion King.
Nevertheless, there’s one final twist to the tale, one that centres on the queens of Pride Rock. While the majority of the film focuses on the male characters, lionesses are the ones to watch out for in real lion society. Female lions have been known to viciously attack the alpha male when they aren’t doing a good job at leading the pride, especially when it involves food or the lack of it.
In the years following Mufasa’s death Scar allows the kingdom to fall into ruin, depleting the once-plentiful food supply and letting another apex predator, hyena, take over the territory. Furthermore, in the scenes where Scar talks to the lionesses there are no ‘baby Scars’ in the background. In truth, there’s no point Simba returning to Pride Rock to defeat Scar as the lionesses would have already done it for him. It’s worth noting, however, with no alpha male to take over the pride would have disbanded and Pride Rock would have still fallen into ruins.
In conclusion, what have we learned about the movie science of The Lion King?
Mufasa killed his way to ruling Pride Rock and was most likely a cub murderer; Simba was partaking in an incestuous relationship or would have been exiled by his own father; and despite Scar being the rightful alpha male of Pride Rock his mismanagement of the kingdom would have got him killed by the true heroes of the film, the lionesses.
That’s the real ‘circle of life’.