Farmers in Africa Are Painting Eyes on Cows’ Bottoms and They Have a Reason

It might look like a prank but it actually works. Scientists have found that painting large eyes on cows’ bottom can help protect them from lions and other predators.

This eye catching solution protects livestock, lions and livelihoods. Photo: UNSW/BEN YEXLEY

Painting eyes on the backsides of livestock can protect them from attacks by lions and other predators in landscapes where they coexist, a joint study from UNSW Sydney, Taronga Conservation Society Australia and Botswana Predator Conservation demonstrates.

As part of the experiment, eyes on were painted cattle in 14 herds suffering regular lion attacks in Botswana, Africa.

One-third of each herd was painted with an eye design on the cows’ bottoms, one-third with simple cross marks, and the rest of the cows were left without any markings.

The researchers found that cattle painted with fake eyes were significantly more likely to survive than unpainted or cross-painted control cattle within the same herd during the four-year study.

Are you looking at me? Photo: UNSW/BEN YEXLEY

The scientists presented their method in a paper published in the journal Communications Biology. They reckon it’s a more humane alternative to using lethal control, and a more ecologically sound alternative to using fencing to separate livestock from carnivores.

They beleive that because predators rely on being undetected by their prey for a successful attack, they could perhaps trick lions into thinking they had lost this advantage and ultimately give up on the hunt.

“Lions are ambush predators that rely on stalking, and therefore the element of surprise, so being seen by their prey can lead to them abandoning the hunt,” pointed out joint UNSW Science and Taronga Western Plains Zoo researcher Dr Neil Jordan.

“We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses, potentially protecting lions and livelihoods at the same time.”


To the researcher’s surprise, none of the eye-painted cows were killed by ambush predators during the four-year study, while 15 unpainted and four cross-painted cattle were killed.

“While these results do support our initial hunch that creating the perception that the predator had been seen by the prey would lead it to abandon the hunt – the detection hypothesis – there were also some surprises,” Jordan said.

“Cattle marked with simple crosses were significantly more likely to survive than were un-marked cattle from the same herd. Although eye-marked cattle were more likely to survive than the other groups, this general ‘conspicuousness’ effect suggests that novel cross-marks were better than no marks at all, which was unexpected.”

Some of the cows were painted with crosses, which scientists said was better than having no paint at all. Photo: UNSW/BEN YEXLEY

Animals including butterflies, fish and birds have been observed to have fake eye designs on their bodies which help them confuse and ward off other predators in their natural environments.

But as for mammals, none of them naturally produce these eye designs on their bodies to help them survive against other creatures.

“To our knowledge, our research is the first time eyespots have been shown to deter large mammalian predators,” study co-author Cameron Radford said.

“We think this may suggest the presence of an inherent response to eyes that could be exploited to modify behaviour in practical situations – such as to prevent human-wildlife conflicts and reduce criminal activity in humans.”

Wow, does that mean we’ll be painting eyes on our bottoms soon?

Sources: 1, 2, 3


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