The Science of Space at Pepper Family Wildlife Center

June 2, 2022

As the summer sun sets, the tall savanna-like grasses at Pepper Family Wildlife Center rustle in the wind. Jabari lounges on Pride Rock, enjoying the cool air rushing through the overhead vent. He peers out into the distance, looking upon his “kingdom.”

Pepper Family Wildlife Center, the 18,300-square-foot lion habitat that opened this past fall, is a shining example of Lincoln Park Zoo’s commitment to continuously improve animal care standards and promote the best welfare possible. The state-of-the-art space houses fewer species in order to provide the animals in the zoo’s care with more spacious and complex habitats that encourage species-specific behaviors.

As a data-based institution, the zoo turned to what it knows best—science—to create Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Its design was informed by data from ZooMonitor, a mobile app developed by Lincoln Park Zoo. The app was used by trained zoo volunteers over the last several years to collect details on lion behavior and space use to understand their preferences. One might even say lions helped design the new digs!

The previous lion habitat featured three large boulders and one hot rock. ZooMonitor data revealed that the former pride preferred elevated spaces in addition to opportunities for warmth in winter and shade when the temperature was higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

With these observations in mind, Pepper Family Wildlife Center was designed to include multiple thermal areas. The habitat features sixteen hot rock areas, and each hot rock was crafted to fit one lion comfortably or a couple of lions next to each other. In addition to hot rocks, there are three distinct thermal areas that are designed to offer additional heat at chillier times and coolness in the hotter months. The thermal areas are located in the shade and include a vent that blows cool air.

Pride Rock, a favored spot for the lions to lounge, features an overhead vent that is heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. Not only do the lions enjoy the comfort of the heating and cooling elements, Pride Rock provides plenty of elevation and desirable vantage points.

Since Pepper Family Wildlife Center’s grand opening, what have the zoo’s scientists discovered about where the African lion pride, comprised of Jabari, Hasira, Cleo, and Zari (and now little lion cub Pilipili!) spend their time in the new habitat?

Space use data from the ZooMonitor app revealed that the lions are making use of the elevated spaces and spending time in climate-controlled areas. Heat maps (shown below) are used to show areas the lions prefer (red areas) on a top-down image of the habitat.

That’s a win for all those involved in the renovation process! The pride is utilizing the spaces as hoped and planned for.

A key takeaway from the maps is that the lions are spending time throughout their entire habitat and are making use of the space as a whole. Since each area inside was designed specifically to give the lions choice and include multiple options to rest, explore, and gain elevation, their use of the space highlights the success of the zoo’s data-driven approach.

Insider tip: Looking for the lions? The pride tends to gravitate towards the east windows that look out onto Main Mall. Animal Care experts hypothesize that this may be due to the view.

Thank you to the zoo’s behavioral monitoring volunteers and Animal Care staff who help collect ZooMonitor data. This information helped create Pepper Family Wildlife Center, an incredible facility that will stand the test of time.

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