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Eye-opening experiment

July 8, 2016

Scientists hope a simple low-cost trick will significantly reduce the number of cattle killed by African lions. All that's needed for the eye-opening experiment to work is black paint.

rear of cow with painted eyes Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/Taronga Western Plains Zoo/N. Jordan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Taronga Western Plains Zoo/N. Jordan

Australian scientists hope painting eyes, easily visible and potentially intimidating, onto the rear ends of cattle in Botswana will keep lions from attacking.

The tawny ambush hunters will think they have been spotted and abandon the hunt, researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney say.

The researchers stamped painted eyes on the rumps of one-third of a herd of 62 cattle.

Ten weeks later, lions had killed three unpainted cows, but no cows with eyes on their behinds.

Close-up of cow's eye Copyright: Imago/Westend61
Check out the similarity: it certainly seems to fool the lionsImage: Imago/Westend61

"In nature, being 'seen' can deter predation," UNSW conservation biologist Neil Jordan says, adding that patterns resembling eyes on butterfly wings are known to deter birds. This mechanism is known as defensive mimicry.

By changing the color and texture of its skin, the mimic octopus impersonates other local species and predators. Hiding, camouflage, and playing dead are other forms of protecting against predators in the animal world. People also resort to tricks: woodcutters in India wear masks painted like faces on the back of their heads to ward-off man-eating tigers, who usually attack from behind.

peacock butterfly Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B.Thissen
Anti-predator defence: the peacock butterfly's eye spotsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B.Thissen

As their traditional hunting areas grow smaller, lions are increasingly moving onto farmland, says Jordan.

So the project named "iCow" is designed to protect the cattle, but also aims to reduce the number of lions shot or poisoned by farmers who are trying to keep their livestock safe. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species, the African lion is listed as vulnerable, their population as decreasing.

The Australian research team plans to expand its experiments in Botswana, including placing GPS tracking devices on the cows.

"This will give us information about the exposure of painted and unpainted cows to predation risks, and where the conflict hotspots are," Jordan says.

db/cb (dpa)