Let’s Fact-Check The Lion King
Does the wildlife in Disney’s masterpiece actually hold up against real African biology?
And…is this even a question we can ask? I know children’s animation isn’t typically a film genre that’s expected to stand up to scientific inquiry, and that’s cool. I’m cool with it.
But I’ve got a seriously sneaking suspicion that The Lion King tried to hoodwink unsuspecting audiences with some less-than-kosher ecology. Don’t get me wrong, the film is spectacular. It’s been adapted and re-released in dozens of formats to millions of people, and in 2019 we’re finally getting a legit star-studded, semi-live-action reboot. Against all odds, it finally happened.
And, yes, the movie isn’t supposed to be factual. The characters talk, they scheme, they dance in drag and do the hula. Still, The Lion King flirts with a small handful of scenarios that do indeed dip into real biology, if only for brief moments. Let’s see if there’s any legit science that keeps the film grounded in reality.
Please, bear with me. This actually gets really cool.
Lion uncles actually do conspire to commit murder. Seriously. Infanticide in lions (as well as other mammals) is a depressingly common behavior for incoming males that overthrow dominant leaders and want to spread their genes as quickly as possible. According to BBC Nature:
“In lion society, for example, killing infants results in their mothers becoming quickly fertile again, increasing the chance of the new males having offspring. And if they don’t kill any infant males that are not their own, they run the risk these cubs will grow up and stage their own coup.”
So in addition to taking inspiration from Hamlet, The Lion King followed a major cue from mother nature herself. But here’s where the narrative gets a bit shaky.
Scar and Mufasa may never have been related. This is less of a “fact-check” and more of a “bombshell,” at least according to Fox News. Just last week, a producer of the original film revealed the two leading lions may not share a blood relation…which is odd. Mufasa definitely calls Scar “brother” right before his untimely demise. Apparently the filmmakers wavered back and forth on this point, but at least they knew their science. To quote the producer Don Hahn, “…We talked about the fact that it was very likely (Scar and Mufasa) would not have both the same parents.”
And onto another falsehood: elephant graveyards aren’t a thing, although the myth is fairly widespread. While old or sick elephants do indeed tend to roam away from the herd before they die, there’s no evidence of collective cemeteries that come close to the Shadowland.
You know what else isn’t real? Those thorns that Simba falls into! There are hundreds of thorny plants in Africa and I tried, genuinely, to find a variety that matches the type in the movie. The closest I could come was the Knob Thorn, but even that’s a stretch. And my post on r/whatsthisplant got me nowhere.
So far, it seems like the movie is coming up more fiction than fact. Can’t say I’m too surprised.
But here’s one I desperately wanted to be true: What about Pride Rock? Again, the filmmakers have admitted that the mountain was a fictional creation and not inspired by a real place, but my question is bigger — is there a location in Africa where all of our key Lion King species overlap?
I researched lions, hyenas, hornbills, warthogs, meerkats, and mandrills. And I was pleasantly surprised.
If we look at the overlapping distributions, there’s literally ONE single point of convergence just south of present-day Etosha National Park in Namibia. Seriously, just one specific area on the entire continent that hits five of the six key species — the one missing is the mandrill, but Rafiki seems like a character who traveled far from his native territory to come join the party.
And while warthogs and meerkats don’t overlap much in territory, this region is one of the few intersections. Thank goodness we didn’t rain on the Hakuna Matata parade.
While on that topic: yes, warthogs and meerkats are both insectivores. And yes, that rhinoceros beetle is real too and he lives in the same overlapping region as Pride Rock. We’re on a roll.
However, it’s unlikely that a lion could join in on the insect-only diet. I can’t take credit for the math but the numbers have been crunched and a growing lion would need to eat thousands of insects every day — enough to clock in at the requisite 8000–9000 calories.
Depending on the type of insect, that’s at least a handful of grub every minute around the clock 24/7. It’s possible, sure, but unlikely.
And to round it all out: can lion ghosts manifest as clouds? Yes and no. Best not to dwell on the specifics.
In the end, I neither appreciate The Lion King more nor less. What we’re left with is, frankly, a mess of facts and fables that don’t make the source material feel any more enlightening — it’s the same old Disney movie, just with more commentary.
Elephant graveyards? Nope. Thorny vines? Nope. Pride Rock? Maybes.
Regardless of how you feel about classic animation, even something as benign as The Lion King can be an anchor for biology. Did you read all the way until the end of this article? Then HAHA I tricked you into learning science! It might not be good science, but I’m tired and it’s the best I could do.
I think it was Simba who put it best: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”