Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

I have immense respect and awe for people with artistic talent. Since I have have absolutely none to speak of, the process of developing a piece of art from sketch to completion (and making it look beautiful) is something that baffles me. Artists who focus on the illustration of specimins, science, and natural history art are particularly awesome and rare.

I am lucky enough to consider as friends two talented natural history artists, Glendon Mellow and Carl Buell, who have both designed the beautiful banners which rotate on the masthead above. I have another to add though, reader John Perry Baumlin who emailed this gorgeous original watercolor (below) of a lion skull and invited me to post it.


This piece was included in Focus on Nature IX at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York during the summer of 2006. The juried exhibition featured the work of 69 artists from 12 countries. The Focus on Nature exhibition began 19 years ago and is held every two years, in conjunction with the Northeast Natural History Conference. I’ve always had a special fascination with bones and especially skull morphology. To me they are like natural sculpture, objects of great beauty. ~John Perry Baumlin ~

Seeing this skull piqued my curiousity as to what was once *in* it. What does a lion’s brain look like, and how big is it? The BrainMuseum answered both.

This specimen was an adult male lion, which was perfused with fixative, and obtained from the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. The first thing I noticed about this brain was the prominence of the olfactory bulbs (the bulb-like structures protruding from the front of the brain), which makes sense given the importance of the sense of smell to lions in tracking prey. Generally, the brain was more folded (containing many gyri and sulci) than I expected.\


UPDATE: I received an email from John Baumlin which adds a bit more information about the olfactory abilities of lions.

…while lions have pretty good olfactory abilities, as you noted from their brain anatomy, it is used mostly in communicating with others of their own kind rather than in tracking prey. All cats leave scent markings which can be read by others. Here’s what George Schaller (whose study of lions in the Serengeti is one of the great works in field biology) says: “Males mark not only their trails, but also the vicinity of estrous lionesses and kill sites; they squirt after fights and during meetings with friends and, in fact, during any situation in which their claim to ownership or right to be there might be questioned. Scent marks are in effect physical extensions of the animals themselves, in that they communicate to others that a lion lives there, how recently it has passed, perhaps who it was, and, in the case of a lioness, whether or not she was in heat.” They have a whole language of smells that is completely foreign to us more visually oriented creatures.


  1. #1 Ed Yong
    October 11, 2007

    “Generally, the brain was more folded (containing many gyri and sulci) than I expected.”

    Shelley, what’s the significance of having more folds?

  2. #2 kc
    October 11, 2007

    More folds=more surface area=more brain.

  3. #3 Tierhon
    October 11, 2007

    I don’t think kc explains it well enough, and I don’t really know the answer exactly, but I can try. With folding you get more surface area, but that in itself is not an explanation for why you get more brain. You could get more brain by filling the furrows the folding causes with brain. The inner mass of the brain is filled with white matter, the axons that connect nerves together. The outer part is grey matter, the cell bodies of the nerves which the axons connect to. The cell bodies does all the processing, so with more surface area you can have more processing cells. This is why humans are thought of as more intelligent than some of the other animals, we got more processing cells. Shelley might not have expected so much folding on the lions because lions are not regarded as intelligent as humans and primates.

    This is said without that much neuroscience knowledge, I just hope it’s not too far off mark.

  4. #4 Laelaps
    October 11, 2007

    That’s an absolutely beautiful watercolor. As for the prominent olfactory bulbs, I wonder if there’d be any difference in terms of relative size when compared to the Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Lions and hyenas fight over kills all the time and I wonder if the olfactory bulbs of hyenas would be larger if they made use of decaying carcasses. Even after lions are done with a carcass, hyenas can make use of the scraps and the bones so I wonder if they’d have an overall better sense of smell to detect such leftovers. This isn’t to say that hyenas only scavenge, though, since they actively hunt and kill just as much as lions do despite their reputation.

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    October 12, 2007

    Tierhorn is right on. I don’t know much about feline/big cat neuroscience (my knowledge is limited to human and rodents) but generally speaking, the amount of cortex folding (as well as the size of the cortical lobes) is a crude measure of a creature’s intelligence. While lions are clearly no dunces, the amount of folding in their brains exceeded my expectation of their need. But on second thought, they also travel extremely long distances, migrating for food and water, which would likely require good mapping and memory skills. They also have rather complex social interactions too.

  6. #6 Mark
    August 23, 2008

    Great website, absolutely amazing,really helped my son with his school project.

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