Fierce lions become friendly kittens when ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is sprayed into their nostrils

Fierce lions become friendly kittens when ‘love hormone’ oxytocin is sprayed into their nostrils



Lions are normally highly violent in the wild, and they ferociously defend their territory from other lions.

In captivity, though, this can be a major problem, especially when lions from different prides are put together.

The researchers conducted the investigation with lions on a wildlife reserve in Dinokeng, South Africa, to determine if oxytocin may help them relax.

The scientists utilized raw steak to entice 23 lions to a fence, where they could then spray oxytocin into their nostrils.

‘We know it can travel up the trigeminal nerve and the olfactory nerve right up into the brain by spraying oxytocin directly up the nose,’ Jessica Burkhart, the study’s first author, added.

‘Otherwise the blood-brain barrier could filter it out.’

The researchers observed the lions, both before and after the oxytocin treatment.

‘You can see their features soften immediately, they go from wrinkled and aggressive to this totally calm demeanour,’ Ms Burkhart said.

‘They totally chill out. It’s amazing.’

To measure each lion’s tolerance towards other lions, the researchers gave them a pumpkin toy, and studied how closely they let others approach it.

‘After the lions were treated with oxytocin and we gave them their favourite pumpkin toy to play with, we saw the average distance between them drop from about 7 metres with no treatment to about 3.5 metres after oxytocin was administered,’ Ms Burkhart explained.

However, the team found there was an exception – when food was present, the lions were not more tolerant of others, even if they had been given oxytocin.

The lions were also less vigilant towards potential intruders when they were given oxytocin.

While untreated lions always roared back in response to recorded roars of unfamiliar lions, those given oxytocin never roared back.

The team hopes the findings will be helpful for maintaining peace between lions in reserves and in sanctuaries.

‘Currently we’re working on introductions of animals who have been rescued from circuses or overseas or war zones that now live in sanctuaries,’ Ms Burkhart concluded.

‘The hope is that this will translate to animals being relocated in the wild, helping them to become more inclined to their new social environment so they’re more curious and less fearful, leading to more successful bonding.’

What do we know about lions?

Modern lions, part of the cat family, first appeared in south and east Africa, before evolving into two groups.

One now lives in eastern and southern Africa, while the other includes lions in west Africa and India.

Like many other animals, male lions are much larger and heavier than females, with the average weight for a male around 416 lbs (189 kg), while for a female it’s 277 lbs (126 kg)

The heaviest male lion recorded was spotted in Kenya and was 600 lbs (272 kg).

Much smaller in comparison, the heaviest female, found in South Africa, was 335 lbs (152 kg).

That is heavier than the weight of more than 50 female domestic cats put together.

Lions have three types of teeth: Incisors, used for gripping and tearing meat; Canines used to rip skin and tear away meat; Carnassial teeth act like a pair of scissors to cut meat.

The team used hunks of raw meat to lure 23 lions up to a fence, where they could then spray oxytocin up their noses
The team used hunks of raw meat to lure 23 lions up to a fence, where they could then spray oxytocin up their noses

Lions can open their jaws to up to 11 inches (28 cm) wide, giving them one of the animal kingdom’s biggest bites.

A lion’s paws are similar to a pet cat’s, with five toes on the front paws and four on the back.

Lions have retractable claws, which can grow up to 1.5 inches (38 mm) in length. A fifth toe on the front paw has what is called a deathclaw, which acts like a thumb for holding down prey when eating.

Single lion looking regal standing proudly on a small hill
Single lion looking regal standing proudly on a small hill

Lion cubs are born with a greyish woolly coat, with dark spots covering most of the back, legs and face which act as camouflage.

At around 12 to 14 months old, male cubs begin to grow longer hair around their chests and necks.

This is the beginning of their mane, which will not have grown properly until they reach the age of two.

Lion cubs are born blind and don’t begin to open their eyes until around three to four days old.

Their eyes are a blue-grey colour at first and begin to change to an orangey brown by the age of two to three months.

Lions have scent glands around their chin, lips, cheeks, whiskers, tail and in-between their toes.

These glands produce an oily substance to keep their fur healthy and waterproof.

If you ever see a picture of a lion curling up its top lip and pulling a funny face, the chances are it’s using something called its

This is a small area in the roof of the mouth that allows a lion to ‘taste’ smells in the air.

By showing their teeth and sticking out their tongues, lions are able to catch hold of a smell to work out if it’s coming from something worth eating.

Lions also have good sense of hearing, and can turn their ears in different directions to listen to sounds all around them.They are able to hear their prey from a mile (1.6 km) way.

This article by Shivali Best was first published by The Daily Mail on 30 March 2022. Lead Image: Researchers from the University of Minnesota showed that spraying the hormone up lions’ noses made them much more friendly to other lions – as long as food wasn’t present.


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