“I’d imagine lions have a certain perception of other lions and of their prey. But what about animals that are not “important” to them like eagles or bees?
How do indigenous animals perceive an alien species (polar bear sees kangaroo) for the first time?
Is there a distinction for insects?”
We (as in animal scientists, behaviorists, vets, biologists, etc…) don’t know yet.
Your question could be broken down into many levels–for instance, how lions visually perceive non-threatening, non-prey animals, or what their neurological response might be to them–and I don’t have the answer to anything so specific, except to say from a behavioral P.O.V., that animals generally disregard other species that don’t benefit or hinder them directly. They also have symbiotic relationships with other species they are not aware of (Hippos, for instance, benefit from birds that basically hang out on their backs and prey off of insects that feed /bother the hippos).
But your question is actually hugely important in terms of how we currently look at and study animals.
“How do we perceive other species? How are our perceptions of animals limited due to the fact that we, too, are animals that do not have the same needs, instincts, diets, climates, and so on, as other species? What can we understand from our similarities–and more importantly, what can we understand from their differences?” These are the major questions we have to ask ourselves as animal behaviorists/scientists.
We as a species live within our own sphere, as do all other animals. In this sense, whether we are looking at a cow as a source of food or a dog as a source of companionship or a parrot as a source of scientific understanding of animal language….we are still only observing them from within our own species bubbles.
So in the most simple sense, a gnat is a nuisance (as in, neither directly beneficial or hazardous) to us just as a gnat is a nuisance to a lion. At the same time, we both need gnats for the same biological reason– and we both require them in the food chain without realizing it.
In a larger, more abstract sense, humans simply cannot see outside our sphere–we can understand and even imagine how a snake sees a mouse, but we cannot see in infrared. We can recognize grief in an elephant, but we cannot ever really know what they are thinking, what that grief means to them, what it feels like to have two ways of crying, why they react or don’t react in certain ways we react, or the evolutionary importance grieving played in their development.
Last, in terms of mammal to mammal relations, there are many. There are many popular viral videos lately of “unexpected friendships” among separate species–Goats that are friends with horses, a lioness that spares a baby baboon–that kinda thing. We love these because in them we can see and relate to the feeling of inter-species companionship, empathy, and even what we perceive as love. But we cannot truly know what they are feeling. For example, we can crave a cheeseburger, but we don’t crave raw zebra meat the way a lion might. Still, we know what its like to need/desire food. In the same way. we can only assume we feel something similar emotionally when we see a lion adopt a baby ape….we can associate our own feelings with theirs because our nurturing behaviors are similar. But how can we ever truly know the lionness is reasoning or motivation or true emotion when she cares for the ape? We cant.